President Obama collided with his own party Tuesday when Senate Democrats stalled consideration of a trade measure that would give the administration greater authority to negotiate more freely with other countries.
The Senate vote was a sharp blow to the president’s efforts to win approval for a new Asia-Pacific trade bill that has emerged as a top agenda item for Obama. Only one Democratic senator, Thomas R. Carper of Delaware, voted with the president Tuesday.
Administration officials and Republican leaders immediately said they would bring a measure back to the Senate floor.
But the setback highlighted the president’s failure to convince Democratic lawmakers, labor union leaders and environmental groups that the 12-nation trade deal known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership would help the U.S. economy. Obama has argued that the pact would open markets, promote better labor conditions abroad and protect endangered species and the environment.
Obama has made the trade deal one of his top priorities, and to bolster his ability to finish negotiating the still-secret terms of the accord, he has asked Congress to give him “fast track” trade authority. But a procedural motion to open up debate of the fast-track legislation failed by a 52-to-45 vote, falling short of the 60 votes needed to begin consideration of the complex Pacific trade accord.
Ahead of the vote, White House press secretary Josh Earnest played down crumbling support for the legislation as a “procedural snafu” — a phrase he repeated 10 times — that could be worked out in the coming days. Earnest said fast-track authority was “critically important to the future of our economy.”
But in the Senate, the measure’s failure seemed to be more than a procedural glitch. The trade accord has sparked a Democratic revolt and laid bare a spat between Obama and liberal Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.). And it has embittered labor union leaders who feel they helped elect Obama and have received little for their efforts.
Moreover, Senate Democrats — including the handful who have supported Obama’s trade push — said they were not inclined to move forward with debate unless Republican leaders provided assurances that related pieces of legislation would move in tandem.
That group included Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), who negotiated the trade package with top Republicans in the House and Senate and who has been a rare ally of Obama’s trade agenda inside the president’s party.
“Until there is a path to get all four bills passed,” Wyden said after a lunchtime meeting with fellow pro-trade Democrats, “we will — certainly most of us — have to vote no.”
As the vote was faltering in a midday roll call, the bloc of 10 Democrats willing to support the trade legislation was summoned to the White House for a meeting with Obama and top deputies to try to forge a compromise, according to congressional and administration officials. But it was too late.
Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said Tuesday that Republicans were willing to attach “trade adjustment assistance” — which would provide funding authority for worker assistance programs — to the fast-track bill. But he made no pledge to include a trade enforcement bill — which would, among other things, take aim at alleged Chinese currency manipulation and is opposed by the administration — or a fourth bill concerning trade with Africa.
McConnell said those provisions could be attached by amendment to the bills under consideration.
“We want to pass this and get this to the president’s desk,” he said. “It’s the Democrats who are standing in the way of what is one of the president’s prime domestic policy plans for the economy of this country.”
Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), one of the Senate’s fiercest opponents of free trade, said late Monday that the vote to proceed would fail unless Republicans made a more solid commitment to take up the related bills.
“It’s a betrayal of workers and small business in our communities to pass fast track, to put it on the president’s desk without enforcement . . . and without helping workers,” Brown said. “It’s a betrayal of what we should be standing for.”
But Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah), chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, said Monday that there was “no compromise that can be reached that is going to link all four bills together.”
Hatch, who for months negotiated with Wyden, the committee’s top Democrat, over the trade legislation, betrayed frustration at the latest Democratic demands.
Moving all four trade bills in tandem, he said Tuesday, is “not what we agreed to, it’s not what we went forth on, it’s not what everybody understood, and it’s strange to me that they would change their commitments at the last minute.”
“Everybody will have a chance for their amendments within reason,” Hatch added. “If they win on currency . . . that’s the way it is.”
The challenge for Obama is not convincing anti-trade hard-liners such as Brown, but rather persuading a core group of pro-trade Democrats, such as Sen. Christopher A. Coons (D-Del.), to back trade promotion authority (TPA), the formal name for the fast-track bill. TPA gives the president the power to negotiate an international deal that Congress can either approve or reject, but not modify.
“I don’t think today’s vote is a death knell for TPA,” Coons said Tuesday. “But it is a very strong warning shot to the majority leader and those who would advance TPA that without worker protections, without enforcement provisions, they will likely not move forward.”
The provisions the administration is negotiating are difficult to assess. Although not open to the public, lawmakers are allowed to see them in a secure room without taking notes or electronic devices.
Nonetheless, the administration has dispatched Cabinet members and the president to a variety of staged public events around the country meant to highlight the benefits of increased trade. Obama has argued that the Trans-Pacific Partnership would make American goods and services more competitive by opening up markets such as Japan’s auto market and improving labor conditions in places like Vietnam.
Still, a variety of unions and liberal groups hailed the president’s defeat Tuesday. AFL-CIO President Richard L. Trumka said the trade bill “would have led to undemocratic trade deals that lower wages and eliminate jobs.”
“I’m not sure they can fix it because I think the administration has indicated it is willing to go so far and no further in fixing the real problems of our trade agenda,” said Bill Samuel, head of government relations for the AFL-CIO. “They need to demonstrate what they’re doing. They have asked people to take it on faith.”
Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.), the majority whip, said the expected vote was a “failure” of the president’s influence, and he urged Obama to do more to convince wavering Senate Democrats.
“Does the president of the United States have enough clout with members of his own political party to produce enough votes to get this bill debated and ultimately passed?” Cornyn asked.
Earnest said, “I would withhold judgment about the president’s persuasion abilities until we’ve had a chance to advance this legislation through.”
McConnell was the only Republican to vote against proceeding, a tactical move giving him the ability to quickly hold another vote later if circumstances change. Whether that would happen later this week or whether the standoff could extend through next week and into a week-long Memorial Day recess remained unclear Tuesday.
Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) and his presumptive successor, Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), have tendered a compromise offer to Republican leaders, according to a Democratic aide who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal maneuverings. Under their proposal, the currency manipulation measure would be stripped from the broader trade legislation, but it would have to get a Senate vote before the rest of the package moved forward.
Schumer said in a news conference after the vote that he was “not insistent” that the currency manipulation provision be part of the fast-track bill. “But it ought to move together as a package, concurrently, alongside it,” he said.
Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), the minority whip, said he doubted the trade impasse could be quickly overcome and noted other major pieces of legislation — such as a renewal of highway funding and a possible extension of telephone surveillance authority — must be addressed before month’s end.
“If you look how much has to be done, there’s not very much time left to do it,” he said.
Paul Kane and David Nakamura contributed to this report.