Legislation to enable a sweeping trade pact with Asia-Pacific nations stalled in the Senate Tuesday, imperiling a top priority of President Obama's final years in office.
Tuesday's vote represents a major blow to Obama, who lobbied hard for the bill, from foes within his own party, as most Democrats sided with Sen. Elizabeth Warren and others who led the coalition of labor and progressive activists that oppose the deal.
The Senate voted 52-45 to advance legislation that would grant the White House "fast track" authority to steer the Trans-Pacific Partnership and other accords through Congress by majority vote and without amendment. But 60 votes were needed to open debate on the package that also includes aid, called Trade Adjustment Assistance, to U.S. workers hurt by expanded trade. In the end, Sen. Tom Carper was the only Democrat to join the GOP in support of moving forward.
The failed vote doesn't spell the end for the bill. President Obama met with a group of Senate Democrats Tuesday afternoon "to discuss a path forward" for the trade measure, according to an administration official. And Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told reporters ahead of the vote that he'd seek a way to revive the measure.
"This issue is not over," McConnell said, adding that he'll seek to put the measure in the "win column" on a bipartisan basis.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest said the Senate frequently gets hung up on "procedural SNAFUs," and that a vote that falls short does not mean the trade package will not ultimately pass. He said White House officials continue to ask both Democrats and Republicans to support the bills, but that it was the responsibility of the Senate to work out its problems and get back to the legislation.
The writing was on the wall around 1 p.m. Tuesday, when Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon, the coauthor of the fast-track bill, emerged from a meeting with pro-free trade Democrats and announced they could not support the GOP plan to advance the legislation.
"This is a group that is thoroughly committed to getting this bill passed. The group is concerned about the lack of a commitment to trade enforcement, which is specifically the customs bill," Wyden told reporters in the Capitol.
"Until there is a path to get all four bills passed ... we will, certainly most of us, have to vote no," he said after the meeting with around 10 lawmakers, including Democratic Sens. Maria Cantwell, Patty Murray, Bill Nelson, and Dianne Feinstein.
McConnell already packaged the fast-track bill with a separate measure, popular with Democrats, that aids U.S. workers who are harmed by loosening trade barriers. And he said that Democrats could offer other measures as amendments.
But that was not enough for Wyden and others, who also want guarantees that the enforcement bill and another measure on trade with Africa will advance as well.
At a press conference ahead of the doomed vote, Republicans blamed Democrats for stalling the bill and sought to exploit the political divide between many Democrats who oppose fast-track and the White House.
Sen. John Thune, a member of the GOP leadership team, said Senate Democrats were "throwing their own president under the bus" and harming American workers in the process.
Majority Whip John Cornyn said ahead of the vote that pro-free trade Democrats were already reaching out to Republicans to find a way forward.
The decision by Wyden and the other pro-fast track Democrats to demand assurance on the other bills papered over, for the moment, the divisions in their caucus on trade.
Wyden appeared at a pre-vote press conference with Democratic leaders including Harry Reid and Chuck Schumer, who both oppose fast-track.
"Every knows I'm not a fan of fast-track, but that doesn't take away from the fact that legislation has to be done on a fair basis, and that is what we are talking about," Reid said.
Schumer said Democrats want an "equal chance" for all four bills, and talked up provisions in the enforcement measure that he said would combat child labor, aid U.S. steel and solar manufacturers, and combat Chinese currency manipulation.
Provisions dealing with currency manipulation, however, are exactly what the White House does not want in the bill. Earnest said administration officials already have the ability to deal with countries that devalue their currencies, and putting mandates in law could hurt as well as undermine the independence of the Federal Reserve.
Murray, who supports fast-track, blamed Republicans for failing to provide a "credible path forward" on the package of bills.
But McConnell is accusing Democrats of unrealistically asking for a pre-ordained conclusion to debate. "They are demanding that we guarantee an outcome in advance of going on a bill. We don't operate that way anymore here," he said.
Meanwhile, opponents of fast-track cheered the result. "It would have been a mistake to provide fast-track authority for trade agreements that could further undermine American wages, manufacturing jobs, and our environment," said Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, a liberal Democrat.
This article has been updated.
S.V. DÃ¡te contributed to this article
This article is from the archive of our partner National Journal.
We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to firstname.lastname@example.org.