The fate of President Obama’s top policy priority lies in the hands of about a dozen Senate Democrats—again.
This week, the Senate is expected to pass a “fast-track” bill that would pave the way for major free trade deals like the upcoming Trans-Pacific Partnership pact, which would strengthen the economic and strategic ties of 12 Pacific Rim countries composing around one-third of the world’s trade. That deal would be the most significant since NAFTA and is only possible if a small crew of Senate Democrats join Republicans to pass the so-called trade promotion authority bill limiting congressional debate on trade deals for the next six years to an up-or-down vote. The administration says it needs that authority to assuage its allies that Congress won’t tinker much with the their carefully negotiated pact.
To get there, the pro-trade, largely coastal-state Democrats want assurances. They want to make sure that related bills, including one helping workers displaced by such deals, will be taken up and passed afterwards. They’ll have to hope—in a leap of faith—that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell will not drop them. McConnell said last week that even though his fellow Republicans have major reservations about the trade adjustment assistance bill, “the votes will be there to pass it” in order to get TPA done. The goal is for Obama to sign both bills by the July 4 recess.
It’s likely that the votes are there to get it done. Obama has kept up the pressure, inviting the cadre of pro-trade Democrats to the White House last week while progressive leaders such as House Rep. Sandy Levin, the top Democrat on the House Ways and Means Committee, indicated that he would drop the hostage tactic of voting against TAA to sink the overall package. If House Democrats kept up their opposition to TAA, Senate Democrats would be more likely to balk.
But it’ll be close. A month ago, the Senate’s trade package got 62 votes, only two more than necessary, after Senate Democrats got assurances the TAA and TPA bills would be tied together, and some Senate Democrats appear to be backing off now that they they’ll be voted upon separately.
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