Democrats give Obama a black eye on trade
Senate Democrats defied President Obama and refused to pass a bill that would have granted him Fast Track authority on the Trans Pacific Partnership Asian trade agreement.
Minority Leader Harry Reid instructed his caucus to vote against the bill, preferring to combine three smaller trade bills with Fast Track, or TPA. Republicans oppose one of those bills – a customs bill – and refused Reid's request to package all four bills into one.
Meanwhile, Reid managed to unify his caucus against starting debate on the trade package by shifting the debate into an argument over procedure.
“We’ve been very clear for a long time that the bills that came out of the Senate Finance Committee by a big, big margin should be put together and put on the Senate floor,” Reid told reporters shortly before the vote.
Senate Democrats demanded that McConnell combine the fast-track bill with three other pieces of trade legislation, including a customs bill that would address currency manipulation.
Tuesday’s opposition included Senate Finance Committee ranking member Ron Wyden (Ore.) and other Democrats who back the fast-track bill.
“The group is concerned about the lack of a commitment to trade enforcement, which is specifically the customs bill,” Wyden told reporters in explaining his opposition.
McConnell has offered to bring to the floor a package combining fast-track, which is also known as trade promotion authority (TPA), and the Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA) program, which helps workers displaced by foreign competition.
But he refused to combine those bills with the customs and enforcement act, and the package of trade preferences for sub-Saharan Africa.
“Until there is a path to get all four bills passed ... we will, certainly most of us, have to vote no,” Wyden said after meeting with a group of pro-trade Democrats.
Wyden was joined by Democratic Sens. Michael Bennet (Colo.), Maria Cantwell (Wash.), Dianne Feinstein (Calif.), Claire McCaskill (Mo.), Patty Murray (Wash.), Bill Nelson (Fla.) and Mark Warner (Va.).
Republicans accused Wyden of breaking a deal they say he struck with Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) last month to move only TPA and TAA in tandem.
“The ranking member of the Finance Committee has changed the understanding he that he had with our chairman,” McConnell told reporters.
Another winner is Brown, a liberal Democrat and vocal skeptic of free trade. He lobbied his colleagues for weeks to insist on combining all four bills into one package.
“Sen. Brown brought it up to me right away, that he thought keeping them as a package was critical, and he worked the caucus on it,” Senate Democratic Whip Dick Durbin (Ill.) said.
The White House downplayed the defeat, with press secretary Josh Earnest chalking it up to procedure.
It was far more than "procedure" that doomed TPA. There may be only a dozen Democrats who are in favor of the treaty to begin with, and many of them are leery of granting the president the authority to ram the final treaty through Congress with just a straight up-or-down vote.
Obama has already lost the Elizabeth Warren wing of the party and now appears to be rejected by the rest of the Democrats. This is easily his biggest setback in his second term. Given his status, there are more to come.