President Obama’s trade initiative seemed to win new life in the Senate on Wednesday as lawmakers announced a compromise plan that could grant the administration fast-track authority by next week, a feat that would set up an even fiercer battle for passage in the House.
One day after Democrats defied their own president with a filibuster that temporarily blocked a key trade measure, Senate leaders said they had reached an agreement to move forward with a series of votes that would break the impasse.
The breakthrough, announced by Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.), came after an intense day of talks between the parties, along with input from the White House, which scrambled to save the trade deal after the embarrassing filibuster Tuesday.
“The fact is, there continues to be bipartisan support around the idea that the president should have the authority to complete this negotiation,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest said, referring to the “fast-track” powers that would help the administration wrap up talks on the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).
“We’re hopeful that we can advance to the stage of actually debating this on the floor of the United States Senate so it can be put to a vote there,” Earnest added.
The debate over the president’s trade initiative has fractured Democrats, with progressives fiercely opposing provisions in the accord. They have demanded that the administration add tough new measures targeting China’s alleged manipulation of its currency to make its exports cheaper.
Obama has forcefully defended the sweeping accord to enact new trade and regulatory provisions among nations in the Asia-
Pacific region, which account for 40 percent of the world’s gross domestic product. China is not part of the TPP negotiations.
The president was counting on up to a dozen Senate Democrats, led by Sen. Ron Wyden (Ore.), ranking Democrat on the Finance Committee, to support the fast-track legislation and join with a majority of Republicans to get it onto the floor for a vote and, presumably, approval.
But Wyden and the other pro-trade Democrats balked early this week, demanding assurances that the currency provision would be signed into law before moving forward on the fast-track legislation. McConnell refused to allow the currency bill to be considered simultaneously Tuesday, leading just one Democrat, Sen. Thomas R. Carper (Del.), to vote in favor of the fast-track bill.
Under the Senate plan announced Wednesday, a separate currency bill will be voted on Thursday afternoon, followed by a vote on an African trade bill. Only after those votes will the Senate turn to the fast-track legislation and a related bill to offer aid to workers who lose their jobs.
Senate leaders indicated that enough Democrats had agreed to the schedule to suggest the fast-track bill will ultimately win approval and move to the House.
The compromise plan represented something of a reversal by Wyden, as the tough currency legislation has been opposed by the Obama administration and faces an uncertain future in the House. It is unlikely to be signed into law, though it has the support of many senators from Midwestern states hit hard by manufacturing job losses in the past two decades. That legislation also contains other measures for enforcing trade deals.
“Enforcement of the trade laws is a prerequisite to a modern trade policy,” Wyden said Wednesday. “Suffice it to say, that was the message that was conveyed yesterday by pro-trade Democrats, Democrats who feel very strongly about getting this passed.”
Obama summoned Wyden and the other pro-trade Democrats the White House Cabinet Room after Tuesday’s embarrassing filibuster. According to those in attendance, the president spoke to the group for two hours and made it clear that he wanted this trade legislation approved and was willing to accept most of their enforcement measures on trade deals, just not the currency bill.
Though Republicans expressed frustration with Democrats for not moving forward on the trade deal, they also delighted in the intraparty chaos, coming as both parties attempt to coalesce around their respective agendas ahead of the 2016 presidential elections.
“I think it was just Democrat-on-Democrat violence,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.), the majority whip. “I’m not sure what else you call it.”
By most accounts, Obama has waged one of the most intense lobbying campaigns of his tenure over the past few months to win support from reluctant Democrats. But he was facing intense opposition from a broad progressive coalition that has been waging a battle for more than two years in anticipation of this moment.
Democrats opposed to the trade deal suggested that the president has only himself to blame for failing to heed warnings and take seriously the objections raised by his own party.
“Members of Congress have written dozens and dozens of letters on specific issues,” said Rep. Rosa L. DeLauro (Conn.), leader of group of House Democrats who have opposed the agreement.
Instead of being taken seriously by the White House, she said, “we have been rebuffed, and now this frenetic sense of ‘Let’s try to address those who are still undecided,’ I believe they have underestimated the depth of feeling of those wanting to be engaged.”
If the fast-track bill makes it out of the Senate, it will set up a battle next month in the House, where Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) has warned that he could need more than 50 Democrats to support the bill. Obama has so far appeared to win firm or tentative commitments from fewer than half that many.
Paul Kane contributed to this report.