After no shortage of fits and starts, the centerpiece of President Barack Obama's trade agenda — Trade Promotion Authority — is finally heading to his desk.
The Senate voted 60-38, to clear a measure that would revive "fast-track" Trade Promotion Authority. That vote was not in doubt, with the bill having gotten the critical 60 votes needed to limit debate on Tuesday.
"This bill will help farmers, ranchers, manufacturers, and entrepreneurs throughout our country get better access to foreign markets and allow them to compete on a level playing field," said Finance Chairman Orrin G Hatch, R-Utah. "This bill will help give these job creators – and the workers they employ – greater opportunities to grow their businesses which will help create a healthier American economy."
In a rapid series of votes ahead of the 7th annual Congressional Women's Softball Game, senators were pressing ahead votes to limit debate and pass a broad trade-preferences measure with an extension and expansion of Trade Adjustment Assistance attached.
That program, which provides support to workers who may lose their jobs from negative effects of trade, was expected to advance through the Senate despite opposition from Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and many other Republicans. But, McConnell knew the TAA measure was needed to secure the Democratic votes to grant the current president and the next one authority to negotiate trade pacts with an expedited Congressional review.
"We had plenty of bumps along the road. Frankly, a few big potholes too. But we worked across the aisle to get through all of them," McConnell said earlier Wednesday. "That's an example of a new Congress that's back to work for the American people. I thank everyone who helped us get here. Now, let's vote again to support the American worker and the American Middle Class by approving the bipartisan TPA bill."
As for the customs bill that will be heading to a House-Senate conference, Finance Ranking member Ron Wyden took time ahead of the votes to highlight Democratic priorities for trade enforcement, with the Oregon Democrat highlighting his own experiences with constituents.
"When I'm at home talking with Oregonians about trade, people often ask why the U.S. is negotiating trade deals if it has a hard time enforcing the laws that are already on the books. This is our chance to show that strengthening enforcement is an integral part of the new, modern approach to trade. Our policies will give America’s trade enforcers the tools they need to fight on behalf of workers across the country and stop the trade cheats who seek to undercut them," said Wyden. "I urge my colleagues to vote yes later today on the motion to send the enforcement bill to conference and work on a bipartisan basis to put strong trade enforcement legislation on the president’s desk."
The flurry of activity came after the Senate reached a deal to speed through the rest of the week's action on trade legislation, giving the House time to pass the Trade Adjustment Assistance measure Thursday before leaving town a day earlier than expected so that members may attend services in Charleston, S.C.
The president's triumph came amid a test of trust between Republican leadership and pro-trade Democrats, who worried a vote on the “fast-track” measure would not be followed by a vote on the extension of a worker assistance program known as Trade Adjustment Assistance.
Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has repeatedly given his word that TAA would follow fast track and the votes will be there to send it to the House. And Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, has promised to keep his end of the bargain as well.
“We remain committed to ensuring that both TPA and TAA are passed and enacted into law,” Boehner said earlier in the week. “The House has passed TPA as a stand-alone 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.”
The Senate's vote all but guarantees victory, as House Democrats conceded as much earlier Wednesday, having been the primary obstacle in Obama's way.
The trade agenda has already been bedeviled by multiple “procedural snafus” in the parlance of White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest, but the White House has expressed confidence repeatedly that it will ultimately succeed.
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