The Senate advanced legislation Thursday that would allow President Barack Obama to expedite passage of trade agreements, over significant opposition from the chamber’s most powerful Democrats.
The vote was 62-38, with 60 required. Senate rules would allow a vote on final passage to occur as late as Saturday, though Texas Senator John Cornyn, a member of the Republican leadership, predicted a vote on Friday. “That’s what it looks like right now,” he said.
“This is quite possibly the most important debate that we’ll have all year in Congress,” said Senator Orrin Hatch, a Utah Republican, in floor debate before the vote. “It’s something that’s very highly wished for by the president of the United States and by a bipartisan majority.”
The fast-track bill would let Obama submit trade agreements to Congress for an expedited, up-or-down vote without amendments. The president has said he wants to complete a 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership and send it for fast-track approval.
Democratic opponents of the trade measure include Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid and Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, who has entered into an unusually public intra-party spat with Obama over the measure. Many Democrats remain stung by the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement, which is blamed by labor unions for a decline in U.S. manufacturing jobs.
“If this was really about jobs, they’d be making claims about jobs,” said Senator Sherrod Brown, an Ohio Democrat who opposes the measure. He said presidents have made “big promises” in the past about the benefits of trade agreements that haven’t materialized.
The vote was close as senators sought to reach an agreement on which proposed amendments would get votes. Thirteen Democrats joined 49 Republicans in voting to move forward with the bill, while 33 Democrats and five Republicans voted no.
“I’m very happy the Senate has decided to take another step forward on this very important initiative,” said Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican. He said Hatch and Oregon Democrat Ron Wyden would continue seeking an agreement on amendments.
“I’m willing to work with my colleagues to get us there,” Hatch said.
The trade bill, H.R. 1314, would give Obama and the next president fast-track powers for six years.
Backers of the measure have spent most of the week working to break an impasse over which, if any, proposed amendments to the legislation would receive votes.
Among issues left to resolve is a push by Senators Debbie Stabenow, a Michigan Democrat, and Rob Portman, an Ohio Republican, to require trade agreements considered under fast-track authority to have enforceable provisions against currency manipulation.
Future trade agreements, like the deal in the Asia-Pacific region that the Obama administration is negotiating, need “strong, enforceable currency language” to protect U.S. manufacturers, Stabenow said in a statement.
Treasury Secretary Jacob J. Lew said in a letter to Senate leaders Tuesday that he would recommend the president veto the trade measure if it includes that amendment.
Lew said the administration supports a related amendment, offered by Hatch and Democratic Senators Michael Bennet of Colorado and Tom Carper of Delaware, that would provide reporting, monitoring and penalties to press countries to address unfair currency practices.
Other amendments proposed by Democrats include a proposal to renew the authority of the U.S. Export-Import Bank. Another amendment introduced this week by Warren would require the Labor Department to investigate allegations of labor violations by countries with which the U.S. has a trade agreement.
Senator Patty Murray of Washington, a member of the Democratic leadership, agreed to vote yes after McConnell promised a vote in June on a proposal to extend the Export-Import Bank’s charter, said a Senate Democratic aide who didn’t want to be identified.
McConnell spokesman Don Stewart said the majority leader had pledged as recently as Tuesday to hold a vote on Ex-Im, though he opposes reauthorizing the bank. Murray’s move represented a retreat from the previous demand that an Ex-Im amendment be attached to the trade bill.
Republican Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama said the Senate should spend more time considering amendments.
“I don’t think we have any need to shut off debate today on a bill on which we’ve had too few amendments,” Sessions said.
Congress is preparing to leave Washington for a weeklong Memorial Day recess. Further complicating the Senate schedule was a talk-a-thon Wednesday by Kentucky Republican Rand Paul, a 2016 presidential contender, protesting an attempt to pass legislation this week to renew the National Security Agency’s surveillance program.
McConnell opposes a House-passed measure that would continue much of the NSA’s authority while prohibiting it from collecting bulk records.
McConnell has introduced a two-month extension of the current NSA program and says the chamber will turn to that issue once it finishes the trade bill. Paul seized control of the Senate floor Wednesday afternoon and refused to relinquish it for more than 10 hours.
McConnell said Thursday that no decisions had been made on timing of a vote.
Movement on the trade bill Thursday follows a rebellion by Democrats earlier this month that temporarily thwarted the legislation and was a rebuke for Obama, who in recent weeks has been in meetings, on the telephone and in personal appeals seeking every possible Democratic vote.
Following Senate passage, the bill will move to the House, where passage will be difficult.
Fourth-ranking House Democrat Xavier Becerra of California said Thursday that Obama doesn’t have the votes at this point to win House passage of the fast-track trade measure.
“Does the president have the votes? I’d say at this stage he does not,” Becerra said at a meeting with Bloomberg reporters and editors. “I think it’s more a matter of: Can Republicans gather Republican votes?”
With 217 votes currently needed for passage, Republicans will provide “a majority of the votes,” Representative Pat Tiberi, the top Republican backer of the bill, told reporters Wednesday.
At least 18 Democrats have publicly pledged to vote yes on the bill. Representative Tom Cole, an Oklahoma Republican and an ally of House Speaker John Boehner, has said 180 to 200 Republicans will back the legislation.