WASHINGTON — The Senate took a big step forward in reviving President Obama’s embattled trade agenda on Tuesday, clearing a procedural hurdle on Trade Promotion Authority that moved the legislation closer to the finish line.
The Senate voted 60 to 37, narrowly overcoming the 60-vote threshold needed on the procedural vote limiting debate.
While the TPA measure advanced on Tuesday, it still faces a final vote on passage in the Senate, which is expected on Wednesday — but it will only need a simple majority to pass.
In addition, Congress intends take a few more critical steps to complete the legislative process on other related trade measures this 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
If the Senate passes TPA, the legislation will go to the President’s desk for his signature. The Senate is then expected to move to a separate package on Trade Adjustment Assistance, a program that helps workers displaced by trade, which has been paired with a popular trade preferences package helping African countries, Haiti and other developing countries.
The advance of TPA in the Senate – for a second time – marked another chapter in the contentious and bruising battle over trade that has taken Washington by surprise and put the trade agenda in jeopardy along the way.
The Senate passed a combined package of TPA and TAA in mid-May but the House defeated it after a revolt by House Democrats who defeated TAA in a bid to derail TPA and the broader trade agenda.
After going back to the drawing board, House leaders in coordination with the White House devised a new plan to resuscitate the trade agenda. They separated TPA from TAA and are putting both measures to separate votes in the House and Senate. The House passed a stand-alone TPA bill on Thursday.
Trade proponents hailed the step forward in the Senate on Tuesday.
But one outstanding question is whether President Obama will sign the TPA bill, which will be sitting on his desk if the Senate passes it Wednesday, if Democrats again rise in protest and vote down TAA and the preferences package
White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest, was pressed by reporters in the daily briefing Tuesday after the vote, about whether Obama would sign TPA this week if TAA does not pass.
“We’re pleased today a legislative path has emerged that will allow both to pass and that’s what we are counting on,” Earnest said, repeating several times that based on the strategy, the president shouldn’t have to be faced with that decision.
“My point is there is no reason this should be an issue,” Earnest said. “There have been significant concerns that have been raised by people in this briefing room that threaten there could be a significant problem encountered. We have encountered problems, but so far we’ve got a pretty good track record of working through them. Right now we believe there is a clear path for both TPA and TAA to come to the President’s desk. There are obviously many more steps to go before that goal is completed but we are certainly pleased with the progress that we’ve made as of today.”
Several trade and industry experts are confident that TAA will pass if the Senate approves TPA and sends it to the president’s desk.
The TAA bill has also been combined with a trade preference package that would renew or extend benefits to sub-Saharan African countries, Haiti and other developing nations – programs that have had overwhelming Democratic and Republican support. A standalone trade preferences bill recently passed with wide margins in both the Senate and House.
It would extend the African Growth & Opportunity Act for a decade, renew the Generalized System of Preferences program that expired in July 2013 and extends trade benefits in the HOPE and HELP programs for products from Haiti through September 2025.
“If we all keep working together and trusting each other, then by the end of the week the president will have TPA, TAA and AGOA and preferences on his desk,” said Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.)” With customs [ a separate trade enforcement bill] in the process of heading his way as well.”
House Speaker John Boehner (R., Ohio) said in a statement Tuesday: “We remain committed to ensuring that both TPA and TAA are passed and enacted into law. The House has passed TPA as a standalone measure. The House will consider TAA once it passes the Senate as part of a new trade preferences bill. And we are ready to go to conference on the customs bill. Our goal is to get TPA and TAA to the president’s desk this week and deliver this win for the American people.”
Phillip Swagel, a professor of international economic policy at the University of Maryland, said Tuesday he is confident TPA and TAA will pass separately. “TPA will pass and I expect President Obama to bring a TPP agreement that can pass as well,” Swagel said. “This is good for the country, and for our political system to show that our elected leaders can govern together on behalf of the nation.”
“AGOA will pass for sure, and it looks like D’s [Democrats] will agree to TAA as well,” Swagel added.
Jonathan Gold, vice president at the National Retail Federation, said: “We believe TPA will pass now based on the strong vote on cloture this morning. It should carry over into the vote [on final passage] tomorrow.”“We applaud those senators and members in the House who voted in favor of TPA,” Gold added. “Now can finally move on and get to the conclusion of TPP, move T-TIP [the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership deal between the U.S and European Union] forward and continue to work through these trade negotiations.”
“The preferences bill already had strong bipartisan support,” Gold added. Everyone recognizes the importance of moving forward on an AGOA extension, doing GSP renewal and Haiti preferences. They are all important programs that have had wide bipartisan support. We hope that the Democrats will vote in favor of them and Congress will finally pass this.”
“The bottom line is I think we’re in a position … to see final passage of TPA and then also to see passage through the House and Senate of this preferences legislation,” said Stephen Lamar, executive vice president at the American Apparel & Footwear Association. “I think we’re on a path toward getting all elements of the trade agenda approved. The commitment that the bicameral leadership has made is that all four elements of the trade agenda – TPA, TAA, preferences and Customs—are going to make it to the president’s desk. That’s the commitment that has been made. Everything that they are doing is executing on that commitment.”