By Lisa Mascaro, Tribune Washington Bureau (TNS)
WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama’s fast-track trade bill cleared a key procedural hurdle Tuesday in the Senate, all but ensuring it will win final passage this week and be sent to the White House for his signature.
Despite deep reservations from many in the president’s party, enough Democratic senators appear ready to join most Republicans to finish the legislation, which has sputtered in Congress but is a top White House priority.
A last-minute flip-flop from Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), who announced Tuesday morning he would now oppose the bill because it had become tangled in Washington “deal-making,” did not upend the vote. Senators agreed 60-37 to advance the measure.
“With just a little more trust, a little more cooperation and simply voting consistently, we’ll get there,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) said earlier this week. “We shouldn’t let this opportunity for significant bipartisan achievement slip past us.” A final vote is likely for Wednesday.
The politics of the trade vote have divided both parties, but especially Democrats, who worry it will cost American jobs. Earlier this month, in a rare rebuke of Obama, House Democrats blocked a version of the fast-track package from advancing. But days later, House Republicans passed a new fast-track bill and sent it back to the Senate.
Even though Republicans mostly support the trade agenda, McConnell needed at least a dozen Democrats to reach the 60-vote hurdle needed to break a filibuster blocking the bill. Thirteen Democrats joined the GOP to advance the measure. Five Republicans bucked the leader and voted no.
Pressure on members of Congress has run high in recent days on both sides of the issue.
The AFL-CIO has been running ads against the trade vote warning lawmakers that American workers will suffer. That put organized labor in an odd alliance with the conservative Heritage Action for America, which told lawmakers that they should vote no because the broader trade package is tarnished by deal-making and government pork.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and leading business interests urged senators to pass the trade legislation.
Fast-track, or trade promotion authority, would allow the president to assure potential trade partners that the deals they negotiate with the U.S. will be presented to Congress for a yes-or-no vote without amendment.
The administration is wrapping up talks on the emerging 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership, the largest deal of its kind, and fast-track authority would cover it and future pacts for the next president.
Fourteen Senate Democrats voted last month for the fast-track bill as part of a broader package that also included funding to continue a worker retraining program for employees who lose their jobs to overseas trade.
But their support came into doubt after the worker retraining legislation was split off by House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-OH), who faced resistance from Republicans who view the Trade Adjustment Assistance program as government waste.
At the same time, House Republicans gutted a related Senate bill that sought to punish countries that artificially inflate their currencies, and then loaded the measure with immigration and climate-change provisions that most Senate Democrats oppose.
McConnell has promised to work out the differences as he tries to nudge the package to completion after weeks of congressional debate. He and the White House each pledged to ensure that both the fast-track authority and retraining funds would pass both chambers, albeit separately.
Amid skepticism and distrust from some Democrats that the retraining program would stall in the House, Boehner stepped in early Tuesday to reassure senators “we remain committed” to sending the entire package “to the president’s desk this week and deliver this win for the American people.”
McConnell vowed that the worker assistance program will get a Senate vote Wednesday as part of a popular trade bill that gives preferences to goods coming from sub-Saharan African countries. And he has pledged to do his best to have a conference committee of House and Senate lawmakers resolve the currency bill and added a provision important to Ohio senators to protect the steel industry from illegally low-priced imports.
The worker assistance bill will still need to pass the House, where the outcome is uncertain because Republicans oppose the retraining program and Democrats have refused to support it as part of a broader strategy to halt the fast-track legislation. Members of the Congressional Black Caucus were particularly frustrated that the popular Africa bill they support was getting tangled in the political standoff.
Others remain concerned that an unrelated effort to extend the authority of the Export-Import Bank, which expires at the end of the month, is not being addressed.
Ultimately, those trying to strike a deal believe that once the fast-track bill clears the Senate, McConnell will keep his end of the deal and Democrats will agree to approve the worker training program.
By then, they say, there will be few options, because the fast-track bill will be on its way to the White House for Obama’s signature. Though Obama has said he prefers to sign both bills at together, he has not said whether he would sign the fast-track bill if the retraining measure fails.
(c)2015 Tribune Co. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
File photo: President Barack Obama and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, right, leave the Gabriel Zimmerman room after a meeting with members of the House Democratic caucus to discuss his trade agenda on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., on Friday, June 12, 2015. (Olivier Douliery/Abaca Press/TNS)