WASHINGTON — President Obama is 0 for 1.
Proponents of the Trade Promotion Authority legislation — a key step in the president’s push to pass the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal — were regrouping after TPA failed to pass a procedural hurdle in the Senate on Tuesday that would have allowed debate to begin. Able to muster only 52 of the 60 votes needed to move the measure forward, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.) recommitted the bill for reconsideration, meaning the Senate can take up the measure again at any time.
But the first vote on TPA dealt at least a temporary setback to Obama’s trade agenda and left senators looking for a path forward.
“We are deeply disappointed that the Senate failed to begin consideration of trade legislation, including bipartisan legislation that would renew Trade Promotion Authority,” said David French, senior vice president for government relations at the National Retail Federation, which has advocated strongly for TPA. “Even with strong support in both parties and the backing of President Obama, job creation and capital investment took a back seat to those who could not rise above political gamesmanship.”
French encouraged Obama and Congressional leaders to “continue the fight on TPA.”
“While we are frustrated by the vote, we remain committed to free and open trade that ultimately benefits American consumers, families, retailers and workers,” he said.
A large bloc of Democrats, including Sen. Ron Wyden (D., Ore.) who helped craft a bipartisan compromise on TPA, voted against advancing it on Tuesday. The Democrats said they opposed McConnell’s decision to not combine two bills — a trade preference measure and customs trade enforcement legislation bill — with TPA.
TPA allows Congress to set negotiating objectives and consultation requirements for the executive branch, but also limits lawmakers to an up or down vote on trade deals. It is seen as a linchpin to completing the TPP agreement between the U.S. and 11 other countries because it allows foreign governments to make their best offers knowing Congress cannot tear apart a final deal.
McConnell paired the TPA bill with another measure, Trade Adjustment Assistance, which helps workers who are displaced when their companies close due to global competition, but it wasn’t enough to satisfy Democrats.
After the vote, he reiterated his pledge to bring up the two bills Democrats want as part of an amendment process.
“What we can guarantee is that senators receive a fair shake once we proceed to the debate our country deserves on a 21st century American trade agenda,” McConnell said. “We will have an open and fair amendment process. That’s what we intend to do when we get on TPA, and for my part, I can restate my commitment to processing TPA and TAA and other policies chairman [Orrin] Hatch and Senator Wyden can agree to. The Senate has historically been a place where our country debates and considers big issues. This is an issue worthy of our consideration, yet today we have voted not to even consider it.”
After the procedural vote, Sen. Harry Reid (D., Nev.), the minority leader, insisted the Republican leader “lump” all of the bills together as one package.
The two other measures that were left out of TPA legislation include one that would extend the African Growth & Opportunity Act for a decade, renew the Generalized System of Preference program that expired in July 2013 and extend trade benefits in the HOPE and HELP programs for products from Haiti through September 2025.
The second is a customs bill that contains provisions Democrats favor, including one that would block imports made with forced or child labor. Another provision addresses the politically sensitive issue of currency manipulation and would allow for “actions with respect to assessing potential trade-agreement partners” if they fail to adopt appropriate policies to “address and correct persistent currency imbalances.” A third provision would allow for the potential imposition of duties on products from countries that intentionally lower the value of their currency against the dollar.
McConnell said including any currency provisions in a bill with TPA would kill it. Wyden said he is still “interested” in finding a path forward, but he too insisted on consideration of the other two bills.
“The Finance Committee gave the Senate a bipartisan trade enforcement bill that will protect American jobs and promote American exports, which are two propositions that everybody in this chamber supports,” Wyden said. “This legislation closes a shameful loophole that allows for products made with forced and child labor to be sold in the U.S. This is 2015 and there is absolutely no room for that loophole in our trade policies. If the decision is made to drop this bipartisan legislation, that shameful loophole will live on.”