Senate Democrats Are Revolting Against Obama's Trade Plan

Republicans are warning that the president's trade package could unravel with minimal Democratic support.

President Obama speaks during an event to recognize emerging global entrepreneurs May 11, 2015 at the South Court Auditorium of Eisenhower Executive Office Building in Washington, D.C. (National Journal)

Senate Democrats are in full revolt against the president and his trade agenda, jeopardizing a legacy-defining pact strengthening the economic ties of the United States and 11 countries around the Pacific Rim.

Some senior Republicans already are pointing fingers at Democrats for opposing a preliminary vote simply to move on to the bill. When asked if he had confidence that the Senate would get the requisite 60 votes Tuesday to advance, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch, a principal negotiator and advocate for the trade package, said, "No."

"Not without Democratic support," he added. "We don't know. There's been some indication that they're all going to vote against. If they do, only God knows what's going to happen."

Republicans claim that a late-breaking demand by Democrats to consider four trade bills in one package has thrown Tuesday's outcome into doubt. There are two bills that Republicans are offering to move together. One is the "fast-track" legislation that would increase the administration's leverage in trade negotiations by limiting congressional debate to an up-or-down vote without amendments. The other is a sweetener primarily for Democrats, a trade-adjustment-assistance bill to help those who lose their jobs as a result of expanded trade. Republicans say it was agreed those would move simultaneously in the Finance Committee.

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But Republicans claim that two other bills—a customs-enforcement bill and another designed to strengthen trade agreements with developing countries—were not supposed to be included in one package. Republicans now are willing only to take those additional bills up in some other manner.

Both Democrats who oppose the fast-track bill—such as Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid—and others who might support it—including Ben Cardin of Maryland, Dianne Feinstein of California, and Christopher Coons of Delaware—have said in the past week that they want the four bills together. Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon, Hatch's Democratic counterpart, wants a "guarantee" that all four bills will become law, according to an aide.

And Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia, a potential yes vote on the bill, said he is "still unclear" about whether or not he'll vote to proceed to the bill.

"We have got to have a plan to get the four bills passed," Kaine said. "I want to see what that plan is to get them passed. Because they all came out, they have all been bipartisan, they are all important."

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The majority of Democrats will not vote for any fast-track bill, also known as Trade Promotion Authority or TPA, no matter what. They discount the administration's claim that the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a major potential trade agreement affecting 40 percent of the world's economy, would be the "most progressive trade agreement in history" because of labor and environmental concerns, and they are concerned that fast-track would limit their ability to impact the deal.

Sen. Angus King of Maine, an independent who caucuses with Democrats, said he would "probably" vote no because he opposes TPA, which would pave the way for TPP.

"I've been to plant closings," King said. "Workers refused to shake my hand because they said, 'Why should I shake the hand of somebody that let them ship my jobs overseas?' That's a formative experience."

But even though Democrats have historically opposed free trade agreements, it's still shocking that President Obama may not be able to get enough of them to vote just to get to a bill on which he has spent so much political capital.

Obama has emphasized trade from this year's State of the Union address to Friday's stop at the Nike headquarters in Oregon. He's cornered sophomore Democratic representatives, showered them with flights on Air Force One, and promised to campaign for them, according to The New York Times. The U.S. Trade Representative claims to have held nearly 1,700 congressional briefings on TPP over the past five years, and even set up an office in the Capitol Visitor Center where members and staff can read the draft language of the agreements. And yet it still might not be enough.

"We'll see whether he can produce them," said Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn of the president's ability to garner the votes of his fellow Democrats. "We're not going to renegotiate how this is going to be taken up. They'll have a chance to have a vote to get on the underlying bill that will then produce a negotiation on the overall legislation. But it's going to be up to the president and the Democrats to produce the votes to get us on it."

Ben Geman contributed to this article