President Obama’s attempt to get fast track authority for the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), a massive free trade agreement with most of the countries in Asia, was shot down in the Senate when it failed to get to the 60 vote plateau to shut off debate.
Fast track authority, also known as Trade Promotion Authority (TPA), would allow the administration to negotiate the trade agreement with the assurance that there would be no attempt to amend the treaty in Congress. It would limit the House and Senate to a straight, up or down vote.
Democrats abandoned the president at the urging of Minority Leader Senator Harry Reid who was seeking to combine the TPA with 3 other trade-related pieces of legislation. One of them, the customs bill, is opposed by most Republicans who want to separate the trade bills into 4 different pieces of legislation.
But there are also Democrats who oppose the entire TPP agreement, saying it would ship jobs overseas. Senator Elizabeth Warren was the most prominent opponent of the treaty, believing it would keep wages low as well.
The White House downplayed the defeat, with press secretary Josh Earnest describing it as a “procedural snafu.”
“It is not unprecedented for the U.S. Senate to encounter procedural snafus,” he said. “We’re going to continue to work through these challenges.”
Earnest dismissed the notion that the vote is a sign the president’s aggressive sales pitch to Democrats on trade has fallen flat.
“I would urge you to withhold judgement about the president’s persuasion ability … until we’ve had a chance to advance this legislation,” Earnest said.
Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and Wyden, the ranking Democrat on the panel, tried to hash out a last-minute agreement to allow the trade package to come to the floor but were unsuccessful.
Hatch said he would urge McConnell to pull the trade package from the floor if Democrats block it.
It could return in the next two weeks but Tuesday’s setback means it will be very difficult to pass trade legislation before the Memorial Day recess.
Two Republican presidential candidates, Sens. Ted Cruz (Texas) and Rand Paul (Ky.), voted in favor of moving to the trade bill.
Another, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), missed the vote, as did Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who is considering a White House run. Rubio and Graham also missed Monday’s votes.
Most Democrats oppose the TPP, but there are probably a baker’s dozen of them who would vote for a final agreement. But in addition to fast track, Reid wants the customs bill, a trade adjustment assistance measure that would compensate workers and companies put at a disadvantage by the treaty, and a package of trade incentives for sub-Saharan Africa. Republicans are not likely to go along unless there are substantial revisions to the customs bill, and perhaps a separate vote on the trade adjustment assistance legislation.
Fast track is even more problematic in the House with many Republicans believing that it takes away some of the prerogatives of the legislative branch. Other conservatives believe they had been taken in by President Clinton on NAFTA and don’t want a repeat.
The TPP would create the largest free trading bloc in the world. Almost every nation in Asia except China is ready to sign on. It is, to quote Joe Biden, a big, effing deal and the fact that the president has failed largely as result of his inability to bring his own party along with him marks a low point in his second term.