WASHINGTON — The Senate passed the controversial presidential Trade Promotion Authority bill on Friday night, defeating amendments that threatened to derail it and handing a hard-won victory on trade to President Obama.
The Senate passed the bill, which only needed a simple majority, a little after 9:00 p.m. — a full week after debate and opposition that at one point blocked the bill from moving forward.
But Senate Republicans were ultimately able to cobble together enough votes with a small group of Democratic senators to push the TPA legislation over the finish line.
To get there senators had to overcome several procedural votes requiring a 60-vote threshold, which created a high-stake political drama and cliffhanger votes throughout the week.
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. This is seen as vital to completing negotiations on the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal between the U.S. and 11 other countries, including Vietnam, the U.S.’s second largest apparel supplier, because it allows foreign governments to make their best offers knowing Congress cannot tear apart a final deal.
The TPA bill, which is paired with Trade Adjustment Assistance, a program that helps workers displaced by trade, will next go to the House, where an even more divisive battle is expected.
Business groups have lined up solidly behind TPA but labor and environmental groups have mounted opposition against it.
“This bill represents an opportunity for Republicans and Democrats to stand together for the middle class,” said Senate Majority Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.) in the run-up to the final vote “We all know that trade is important for American workers and American jobs. 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.”
Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D., Nev.), opposed TPA, calling it a “handout” for multinational corporations that would only lead to job losses.
“Based on my experience in looking at trade bills that have passed in Congress in the years past, it’s not going to help the people I want to help,” Reid said. “I’m happy that multinational corporations are doing well, but my first goal is not them. It’s people who work for a living, middle-class Americans who work so hard, first of all, to find a job. Once they find a job, they do everything they can to hang on to that job. And the trade bill is another example of how we have ignored in this Congress working men and women of this country.”
Reid echoed the sentiments of several Democrats in the Senate, who are concerned that competition from international trade hurts U.S. businesses and workers and leads to job losses.
Obama was reportedly heavily involved in the last-minute wrangling for votes. The TPA bill has pitted the president against many critics in his own party but the president held steadfast to advancing his trade agenda and its cornerstone, the TPP.
Obama said earlier this week that his trade agenda is “consistent with strong labor standards, strong environmental standards, and is going to open up access to markets that too often are closed even as these other countries are selling goods here in the United States.”
“It’s an agenda that’s good for U.S. businesses, but most importantly, good for American workers,” he said.
Senators scrambled Friday to reach an agreement for a vote on a package of amendments to the TPA bill, some of which were extremely controversial.
One of the most controversial amendments, which the Senate rejected, aimed to penalize countries that manipulate their currencies.
That amendment, sponsored by Sens. Rob Portman (R., Ohio) and Debbie Stabenow (D., Mich.), would have required future trade deals to include enforceable currency provisions that could have penalized countries for manipulating their exchange rates for a trade advantage. It would have subjected trading partners deemed to be manipulating currency to dispute settlement procedures and potential sanctions.
The White House threatened to veto the entire TPA bill if the currency amendment passed, arguing that it could undermine independence of the Federal Reserve and threaten its ability to implement monetary policy. Administration officials also argued it would derail the TPP trade talks.
The Senate instead passed an alternative currency amendment that does not threaten sanctions, offered by Sens. Orrin Hatch (R., Utah) and Ron Wyden (D., Ore.), who brokered the compromise deal on TPA. Their amendment directs the administration to hold trading partners accountable for currency practices but focuses on reporting, monitoring and “cooperative” mechanisms to address unfair currency practices.