Having reached a compromise to advance the White House's corporate-friendly trade agenda, the U.S. Senate will on Thursday vote for a second time on whether to open debate about granting President Barack Obama Fast Track authority to negotiate pending and future trade deals.
This time, thanks to "cosmetic concessions offered to the weak-kneed Democrats," as one writer put it, the measure is expected to pass.
After Democrats stymied a Fast Track vote on Tuesday, Obama reportedly turned up the heat, calling resistant lawmakers to the White House and taking "the unusual step of releasing a list of which senators attended," according to Politico.
Citing attendees at that meeting, Politico reports that the president's "message was clear: You need to figure out how to get over this filibuster and send me the Trade Promotion Authority bill to sign as fast as you can."
The Obama administration needs Fast Track, or Trade Promotion Authority (TPA), to help ram through controversial trade deals like the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the TransAtlantic Trade and Investment Partnership with minimal input from Congress. Such authority would last for six years, well into the next presidential administration.
Senate leadership wasted no time striking a deal to revive the Fast Track legislation, leading some to suggest that Tuesday's Fast Track victory was based more on an internal power struggle than a substantive policy disagreement.
Under the compromise reached Wednesday, the chamber was set to vote Thursday on two Democrat-favored bills—customs enforcement legislation, designed to crack down on Chinese currency manipulation; and the African Growth and Opportunity Act, which provides duty-free access treatment to U.S. imports of certain products from sub-Saharan Africa.
Lawmakers will then move on to consider the Fast Track bill, which itself has been linked—as per a previous compromise—with Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA), a program for helping displaced U.S. workers.
The Hill provides details of the day:
The Senate will vote at noon Thursday on a stand-alone customs and enforcement bill that includes currency manipulation language and a stand-alone package of trade preferences for sub-Saharan Africa, according to a Senate aide. Both measures will require 60 votes to pass.
After the Senate votes on the customs and Africa measures, Democrats have agreed to begin debate on a combination of TPA and TAA. It would be subject to an open-amendment process, giving senators broad opportunity to vote on changes.
A vote to end a filibuster on the motion to proceed to the trade package is scheduled for 2 p.m. Thursday. The post-cloture debate time will be set to expire at 10 p.m. Votes on amendments to the base trade package are expected to begin on Tuesday.
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Pro-TPP legislators appear optimistic that Thursday's Fast Track attempt will be successful.
"Though I am of course wary of counting my proverbial chickens before they are hatched ... I expect we will get a strong bipartisan vote in favor of finally beginning debate on these important bills," Senate Finance Committee chairman Orrin Hatch, a Republican from Utah who strongly supports the trade bill, said late on Wednesday.
But critics accused Democrats of folding to pressure from both the White House and corporate backers.
"For a brief shining moment it looked like Senate Democrats might actually stand up for their own constituents and oppose a terrible so-called 'trade deal'," wrote DS Wright at Firedoglake. "But now comes the seemingly inevitable capitulation with Senate Democrats agreeing to give President Obama fast-track authority to advance the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP)."
The cosmetic concessions offered to the weak-kneed Democrats included some empty votes on currency manipulation and an extension of an African trade agreement – in short, nothing. Senate Democrats have set themselves up to get rolled when TPP comes up for a final vote and voting no means scuttling an agreement all their donors will be demanding they approve. Then again, maybe that was the plan all along – offer token opposition to appease the base, cave, then say your hands are tied because the fast-track has made the vote on TPP so binary you have to vote yes.
Still, having reached a deal on opening debate doesn't mean smooth sailing for Fast Track.
As the New York Times reports:
While the pathway to passage became clearer Wednesday, it is still treacherous. Most Senate Democrats will ultimately oppose the trade promotion bill, and with the stated opposition of Senators Rand Paul of Kentucky and Jeff Sessions of Alabama, both Republicans, there are now louder rumblings on the president’s right flank.
... For all the drama, Senate Democrats may have ended up where they started, with tough trade enforcement provisions that are broadly supported but without a vehicle to get them into law. Lawmakers from both parties say that even if the enforcement and currency bill passes Thursday, they may try to break off some provisions as amendments to the trade promotion bill that Mr. Obama must sign into law.
And Fast Track faces a bigger challenge in the House of Representatives, which is expected to take up the bill in June. The Hill notes that "The bipartisan accord has significantly increased the chances fast-track will pass in the Senate, but passage in the House is less certain."
"I believe the House Republicans are having trouble rounding up the votes they need to pass their bill," House Democratic Caucus chairman Xavier Becerra (D-Calif) said Wednesday.