Despite heavy lobbying by the White House, rebellious Senate Democrats delivered a major blow to President Barack Obama’s trade agenda Tuesday, blocking debate on a bill aimed at speeding passage of a 12-nation trade pact, the largest in history.
In the first big test for the legislation, only 52 senators voted to approve a motion to debate the bill. It fell well short of the 60-vote threshold required to stop a Democratic filibuster.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., called the outcome of the vote “pretty shocking,” saying the president’s top economic priority had been rejected by senators of his own party.
Obama had lobbied hard for the bill, which would grant him fast-track trade authority, also known as trade-promotion authority. It would block Congress from amending the trade deal once submitted by Obama and leave Congress only the option of an up-or-down vote. Obama has promoted the trade deal, called the Trans-Pacific Partnership, for his entire presidency.
Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said the fast-track bill will only pass if the president can get more members of his own party on board. “Ultimately, it’s up to the president,” Cornyn said.
Democrats presented a united front in the opening battle. Only one, Sen. Tom Carper of Delaware, crossed party lines to side with the Republican majority. Carper said the vote does not mean that the fast-track legislation is dead but added that Democrats and Republicans must work together “to strike the right compromise and make it happen.”
Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said Obama’s request failed because Republican leaders would not broaden the trade legislation to satisfy enough Democrats.
Democrats wanted to include three other bills with the fast-track legislation as part of a trade package. One would have provided trade-adjustment assistance for workers who lost their jobs because of international trade; a second would have included measures to crack down on currency manipulation, which makes it easier for countries to export goods at lower prices to the U.S.; and a third included provisions for trade with Africa.
Reid noted that all four bills had passed the Senate Finance Committee last month and said that all of them should be brought to the floor at the same time.
“If the Senate’s going to talk about trade, we must consider its impact on American workers and the middle class,” he said.
Republicans accused Democrats of obstruction.
“Let’s be honest: There’s some of our friends across the aisle who want to kill this bill and they want to do anything and everything they can,” Cornyn said.
At the White House, Press Secretary Josh Earnest acknowledged the impasse and the lack of votes but downplayed their significance, calling the setback a “procedural snafu.”
“They’re going to have to work through this challenge and we’ll remain engaged with them as they do,” Earnest said of congressional leaders. He suggested that reporters should “withhold judgment about the president’s persuasion ability until we’ve had an opportunity to try to advance this piece of legislation.”
“I’m not in the prediction business, particularly when it comes to actions that are taken on Capitol Hill,” Earnest said. “But I think the president’s made clear that he considers this to be a domestic priority, principally because of the positive impact it would have on expanding economic opportunity for American businesses and American workers.”
After the vote, McConnell urged Democrats to reconsider their positions, saying trade has historically been a bipartisan issue for the Senate.
“This doesn’t have to be the end of the story,” he said.
McConnell said Republicans would consider trade-adjustment assistance with the fast-track bill but would not include either the Africa bill or any measures dealing with currency manipulation. He said Democrats could bring up the other issues as amendments but that they would not be included in a broader package.
Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, said Democratic leaders initially had agreed that language dealing with currency manipulation issues would not be included in the fast-track vote.
“It’s strange to me that they would change their commitments at the last minute,” Hatch told reporters.
Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon, the top Democrat on the Finance Committee, said he had met with 14 pro-trade Democrats earlier Tuesday, and he predicted that the Senate would move quickly to pass a fast-track bill if it is broadened to include the other provisions.
Wyden said he wanted to work with Republican leaders “to find a bipartisan path to get back to the trade legislation at the earliest possible time.”
White House Correspondent Lesley Clark contributed to this report.