Vote On Obama's Fast-Track Trade Bill Blocked By Senate Democrats

May 13, 2015
Originally published on May 13, 2015 2:43 pm
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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The Senate's blocking of a potential trade deal yesterday becomes more remarkable when you look at the party breakdown. Most Republicans voted with President Obama to allow a streamlined process to consider a trade deal. But the overwhelming majority of Democrats voted against the president, and the vote total was not enough to move ahead with debate. Democrats sided with the likes of Elizabeth Warren, the Massachusetts Democrat who argued on this program yesterday against fast-track trade authority for the Trans-Pacific Partnership. NPR's Ailsa Chang reports on the deep Democratic divisions.

AILSA CHANG, BYLINE: Until recently, the fast-track, trade-negotiating bill was seen as one of the small glimmers of hope that maybe, just maybe the Senate could actually get difficult things done with the president. So even as some fellow Democrats slammed the legislation, Ron Wyden of Oregon defended the deal he struck with Republicans on the finance committee. And then, just two hours before voting on his bill, there was a scramble on the first floor of the capital.

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SENATOR RON WYDEN: Very, very quickly.

CHANG: Wyden had huddled with 11 other Democrats.

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WYDEN: This is a group that is thoroughly committed to getting this bill passed.

CHANG: A group with one major problem with the bill.

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WYDEN: The group is concerned about the lack of a commitment to trade enforcement.

CHANG: In an abrupt turn of events, Wyden and nearly every single Democrat insisted the only way they'd let the bill go forward is if Republicans agreed to package it with three other trade measures. Most controversial was a measure that would crack down on countries that manipulate their currencies to make their exports cheaper. Minority leader Harry Reid had thrown down the gauntlet.

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SENATOR HARRY REID: The deal doesn't have to be a fight. There is a simple path forward - just put all four bills together, bring them to the floor.

CHANG: But to the man who replaced Reid as majority leader after the last election, this was just a power-play by his long-time adversary. Mitch McConnell said Reid seemed to have forgotten he no longer runs the Senate.

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SENATOR MITCH MCCONNELL: What I'm not going to put up with is the minority trying to craft the bill before we even get on it. That's just simply unacceptable.

CHANG: McConnell agreed to pair one measure with the fast-track bill, a proposal to assist workers who lose their jobs under trade agreements. Republicans pointed out even the president opposed the currency manipulation provision because it could derail the trade negotiations. And as Democrats enter the chamber to block the fast-track bill, Republican John Cornyn of Texas blamed the whole debacle on the White House.

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SENATOR JOHN CORNYN: What you'll see here in a few minutes is a failure of the president's ability to convince members of his own party to support a piece of legislation that he himself supports.

CHANG: But if the White House was feeling abandoned or annoyed by its own party, it wasn't going to let that show. White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest dismissed the defection by Democrats as a hiccup.

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WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY JOSH EARNEST: It is not unprecedented, to say the least, for the United States Senate to encounter procedural snafus.

CHANG: Procedural snafus - that seemed an understatement to the top Republican on the finance committee, who had to spend months crafting the fast-track bill. An invisible weight seemed to thump down on Republican Orrin Hatch when he was asked whether the currency manipulation language could be part of the Senate deal.

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SENATOR ORRIN HATCH: Well, I think it creates a whole new monstrous set of arguments and debates that we don't need.

CHANG: McConnell says he'll continue engaging both sides and that he hopes the full Senate will stumble upon the same bipartisan spirit that got this bill out of committee. Ailsa Chang, NPR News, the Capitol. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.