Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid's statement Tuesday that he is a "hell no" on legislation that would give the White House more leverage to negotiate trade deals is reflective of many Democrats on the Senate Finance Committee. But while it is likely that most of the committee's 12 Democrats will still be opposed to a new trade authority, there are signs that just enough Democrats might be open to the bill as it prepares to go into markup on Wednesday.
Senate Democrats have criticized the Finance Committee's process in introducing legislation giving the president Trade Promotion Authority, also known as "fast-track authority," under which the White House would have more leverage to negotiate trade deals like the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership and make the final votes subject to an up-or-down vote without the ability to amend. The legislation for the authority was announced last week by Republican Finance Chairman Orrin Hatch and Democratic ranking member Ron Wyden.
Wyden, who has been criticized by progressives over his support for free trade, said at a hearing Tuesday that the TPP legislation will have a strong emphasis on labor and environmental standards, and any trade deal would be public 60 days before the president could sign it.
GOP Sen. John Thune told reporters Tuesday that four to five Democrats on the committee will likely vote for Trade Promotion Authority. Among potential Democratic "yes" votes are Sen. Thomas Carper, who tweeted praise for Hatch and Wyden's compromise and has spoken supportively of Trade Promotion Authority in previous years.
Sen. Maria Cantwell, another possible Democratic TPA supporter, said the TPA should be accompanied by Trade Adjustment Assistance, which helps workers who are displaced as a result of foreign trade deals, a natural concern for many Democrats who worry about lost jobs in trade agreements.
"You've got to have TAA to go with trade," Cantwell told National Journal. "I'm a supporter of TPA, but listen, the notion that kind of rumpled up around in the last couple of days that TAA might not get done is a very bad message. You've got to take care of the workforce."
Some progressives are concerned that the TPP will repeat what they felt were mistakes of previous free trade deals like the North American Free Trade Agreement. But Democratic Sen. Mark Warner said the scenarios are different.
"I think, though, America is in a different position today and through a strong trade agreement, we're going to become a net job gainer," Warner told National Journal. Regarding the Trans-Pacific Partnership, however, Warner said, "Let's look at TPP as we get details."
The Obama administration is adamant about pushing Democrats on the Hill on what could possibly be one of its few accomplishments in its second term. In an interview with MSNBC that's airing Tuesday, President Obama came out strongly against Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who is not on the Finance Committee, saying she was "wrong" on trade, further revealing the gap between the White House and the Massachusetts Democrat. Members of the administration, like U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman and Labor Secretary Thomas Perez, have met with Democratic members of the House recently to lobby them on the deal.
Still, many Democratic senators side with Reid, saying they have reservations.
"I still have concerns, of course. We have to go through an amendment process and hopefully we'll see what that can produce," Sen. Robert Menendez said ahead of the hearing on Tuesday, adding that he has a whole host of amendments he's ready to offer.
Sen. Chuck Schumer, who has previously criticized the committee's process on TPA, said he still has reservations.
"I would have liked to see more witnesses, but I'm glad we had at least two," Schumer said on Tuesday, in reference to AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka and U.S. Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Tom Donohue.
Donohue was optimistic that there would be enough votes in the committee for Trade Promotion Authority, though he wouldn't get into specifics.
"I leave the counting of votes to my colleagues; just let me simply say we'll get enough," Donohue told National Journal.
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Eric Garcia is a staff correspondent for National Journal. He previously was a transparency reporter for MarketWatch, where he reported on financial regulation issues. His work has also appeared in the Southern Political Report, Salon, the American Prospect and the New Republic. He is a graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and covered politics for its campus paper, the Daily Tar Heel.