Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell will try to remind Democrats this week which party actually controls the chamber.
McConnell wants to move a fast-track trade bill and needs the help of Democrats to do it, including some who want to advance a larger package of trade bills than many Republicans will support. And Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, a free-trade opponent, is pushing instead for the Senate to take up two issues—infrastructure funding and intelligence gathering—with end-of-the-month deadlines.
McConnell set up a procedural vote for Tuesday on trade promotion authority, which would grant the Obama administration greater leverage in its trade negotiations by limiting Congress to an up or down vote without amendments. The bill would help Obama strike a trade deal known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership, strengthening the economic and strategic ties of 12 countries controlling 40 percent of the world economy.
But before that legacy-defining deal is possible, McConnell, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch, and Oregon Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden must first figure out how to package a deal laden with landmines.
Some Democrats—including those who, like Reid, oppose the trade deal—have called for four trade bills to be considered at the same time in the same package. Besides TPA, the other bills include trade adjustment assistance [TAA], which helps those who lose their job as a result of expanded trade, a customs enforcement bill, and a bill designed to strengthen trade agreements with developing countries.
On Thursday, the Senate Democratic caucus cheered Wyden during lunch after he urged Democrats to not support proceeding onto the bill unless Republicans agree to do all four bills first, according to an aide. California Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a potential yes vote who talked trade last week at the White House with Obama and five other senators—Wyden, Tim Kaine of Virginia, Patty Murray of Washington, Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, and Chris Coons of Delaware—announced the four-bill package demand as her condition to vote aye Tuesday. It's now an open question whether McConnell can get enough votes to even get on the bill.
"I think that's going to depend on whether Republicans agree to put all four trade bills together or not," said a Senate Democratic leadership aide. "Many members of our caucus, including those who support TPA, absolutely want to see China currency and TAA pass as part of this process. If Republicans aren't willing to do that, they're going to find it difficult to get the ball rolling."
Republicans have cried foul, arguing that the Senate Finance Committee agreed to move TPA and TAA in tandem and that they would work together to ensure the bills would all eventually move. The other two bills—particularly the customs enforcement including a controversial currency manipulation provision—could threaten Republican support of the overall package.
"Our understanding was TPA and TAA only," said a Senate Republican aide. "Then this week Reid says he will block until we do highways and the Patriot Act. Then he backs off that. Now he says he will block [it] unless we do all four."
While McConnell could instead move onto those other bills with time-sensitive deadlines, there's a concern that the longer the process drags out, the better chance that potential yes votes will drop out. Some Democrats believe that it's harder to argue Congress is holding the Administration accountable if it passes TPA and TPP back-to-back.
"Part of the challenge with how close the TPA and the TPP votes are is that we are not having a TPA vote and then a year from now negotiating TPP," Coons said. "They will be quite close together."
"I'm concerned that the goal of TPA is to send instructions to the administration to say here's what we expect you to negotiate," Coons added, "but we know they're most of the way done with the negotiations."
This article is from the archive of our partner National Journal.
Alex Rogers covers Congress as a staff correspondent for National Journal. He previously worked as a political reporter at TIME. He is a native of Bethesda, Maryland and a graduate of Vanderbilt University.