Obama’s fast-track trade bill passes Senate, heads to US lower house

In Photo: Sen. Orrin Hatch, Republican-Utah, is surrounded by reporters as he walks to a luncheon with other Senate Republicans on Capitol Hill in Washington on Friday. Supporters of President Barack Obama’s trade agenda hope to fend off hostile Senate amendments on Friday and send a major trade bill to the House, where another fierce debate awaits. Senators also plan to address the government’s soon-to-expire authority to collect bulk data on Americans’ phone records.

By Richard Rubin, Erik Wasson & Carter Dougherty / Bloomberg

THE Senate passed President Barack Obama’s fast-track trade proposal as majority Republicans, in a rare alliance with the president, overcame opposition from the chamber’s most powerful Democrats.

The 62-37 vote on Friday sends the measure to the Republican-led House, where leaders may struggle to gain enough support to send it to Obama for his signature.

The bill would let Obama submit trade agreements to Congress for an expedited, up-or-down vote without amendments. The president has said he wants to complete a 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership and send it for approval under that procedure.

“We all know that trade is important for American workers and American jobs,” Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said on the Senate floor. “And we all know that, by passing this legislation, we can show we’re serious about advancing new opportunities for bigger American paychecks, better American jobs, and a stronger American economy.”

The Senate, preparing to begin a one-week Memorial Day recess, also must complete work on legislation to extend US spying programs that lapse on May 31 and continue federal highway funding for two months. The House left Washington on Thursday.

Democratic opponents of the trade measure included Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who entered into an unusually public intraparty spat with Obama over the measure. Many Democrats remain stung by the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement, which is blamed by labor unions for a decline in US manufacturing jobs.

Multinational corporations

“Everyone knows I disagree with the reason for the trade bill,” Reid said on the Senate floor. “It’s not going to help the people I want to help. I’m happy multinational corporations are doing well but they’re not my” first priority.

Senators earlier defeated proposed language on currency manipulation that was opposed by Obama.

The trade bill, H.R. 1314, would give Obama and the next president fast-track power for six years.

“We’ve always known that one of the paths to more good-paying jobs is more exports,” said Sen. Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat supporting the bill. “They’re going to buy our wine, our computers, our helicopters, our planes.”

Sen. Jeff Merkley, an Oregon Democrat, criticized the lack of minimum-wage standards and enforcement for trade disputes.

“We should not give away our sovereignty to international panels” that can undermine consumer laws, he said.

The final passage vote came several days after a dispute over amendments almost prevented backers from getting enough votes to advance the bill.

Export-Import bank

McConnell, who has made trade a signature element of his governing agenda, secured an agreement to move forward by promising supporters of the Export-Import bank a vote next month on renewing the bank’s charter, which expires June 30.

Another difficult issue was a push by Senators Debbie Stabenow, a Michigan Democrat, and Rob Portman, an Ohio Republican, to require trade agreements considered under fast-track authority to have enforceable provisions against currency manipulation.

Treasury Secretary Jacob J. Lew said in a letter to Senate leaders on Tuesday that he would recommend the president veto the trade measure if it included that amendment.

In the end, the Senate voted 70-29 to instead adopt language crafted by Wyden and Republican Orrin Hatch of in cooperation with the Treasury Department. It would allow currency rules in trade agreements but wouldn’t require them for fast-track consideration.    

Warren amendment

Senators defeated an amendment introduced by Warren that would have required the Labor Department to investigate allegations of labor violations by countries that have trade agreements with the US.

Opposition to the trade bill by most Senate Democrats included a rebellion last week that temporarily thwarted the legislation. It was a rebuke for Obama, who in recent weeks has been in meetings, on the telephone and in personal appeals seeking every possible Democratic vote.

The bill now moves to the House, where passage will be difficult.

Fourth-ranking House Democrat Xavier Becerra of California said on Thursday that Obama needs more votes to win House passage of the fast-track trade measure.

“Does the president have the votes? I’d say at this stage he does not,” Becerra said at a meeting with Bloomberg reporters and editors. “I think it’s more a matter of: Can Republicans gather Republican votes?”

217 votes

With 217 votes needed for passage in the House, Republicans will make up the majority supporting the measure, Rep. Pat Tiberi, the top Republican backer of the bill, told reporters on Wednesday.

At least 18 Democrats have said they will vote for the bill. Representative Tom Cole, an Oklahoma Republican and an ally of House Speaker John Boehner, has said 180 to 200 Republicans will back the legislation.

Complicating the Senate’s schedule this week was a 10-hour talk-a-thon on Wednesday by Kentucky Republican Rand Paul, a 2016 presidential contender, protesting an attempt to pass legislation to renew the National Security Agency’s surveillance program.

McConnell opposes a House-passed measure that would continue much of the National Security Agency’s authority while prohibiting it from collecting bulk records. He introduced a two-month extension of the current NSA program and said the chamber would turn to that issue after finishing the trade bill.

Another option is a one-week extension of the NSA’s current authority to give lawmakers time to reach an agreement.

Image Credits: AP /Susan Walsh

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