Fast Track trade bill clears procedural hurdle, headed for passage in the Senate


The Senate voted on Thursday to end debate on fast-track trade legislation, handing a significant victory to President Obama and moving the bill a step closer to passage. Senate takes key step toward passing fast-track for Obama:

Screenshot from 2015-01-25 15:31:49Senators voted 62-38 on the bill, which will allow the president to send a sweeping Asia-Pacific trade deal to Congress for an up-or-down vote, and prevent the deal from being amended by Congress.

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Thirteen Democrats in total voted to end debate on a measure that badly divided Obama from his party.

Sens. Patty Murray (Wash.), Maria Cantwell (Wash.) and Jeanne Shaheen (N.H.) were among the final Democratic yes votes.

[The other Democrats who voted to end debate were Sens. Tom Carper (Del.), Claire McCaskill (Mo.), Dianne Feinstein (Calif.), Heidi Heitkamp (N.D.), Chris Coons (Del.), Mark Warner (Va.), Michael Bennet (Colo.), Tim Kaine (Va.), Bill Nelson (Fla.) and Ron Wyden (Ore.), the ranking member of the Senate Finance Committee.]

They appeared to vote after Cantwell secured an agreement from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to allow a vote in June on renewing the Export-Import Bank’s charter.

The bank, which has come under criticism from conservative Republicans, helps finance U.S. investments meant to increase trade, and has been supported in the past by Boeing.

Senate Republicans say votes on amendments and final passage of fast-track are unlikely before Friday. They are hoping to wrap up the trade package Friday afternoon.

Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), who is leading the Democratic opposition, said a vote on final passage before Saturday strikes him as too hasty.

“I don’t think it’s that quick,” he said.

Hatch agreed the trade debate could stretch into Saturday.

If the measure is approved by the Senate, it will set up an even tougher fight for Obama in the House, where opposition to the bill is stronger from Democrats and many Republicans reflexively do not want to give him additional power.

Thanks to Sen. Aqua Buddha, Rand Paul (R-KY), and his not-really-a-filibuster stunt eating into time that would have been better spent on the Senate considering amendments to the fast-track trade bill, Senators were unable to reach a deal on amendments prior to the vote.

Democrats, however, placed the blame for the lack of amendment votes squarely on McConnell.

“After one full day of debate, the majority leader shut down debate,” Brown, a fierce fast-track critic, said ahead of the vote. “That’s an open process?”

The Ohio Democrat suggested that senators should stay through the weeklong Memorial Day recess to have more amendment votes on the trade legislation.

“It doesn’t really matter about the time,” he said.

There was some drama as to whether the bill would get 60 votes for cloture. How the Senate got 60 votes on fast-track:

More than halfway through the vote, it appeared supporters of fast-track might be stuck.

Five Republicans had voted against McConnell, and he needed at least six more Democratic votes to get to 60.

Two key Republicans also had yet to vote: Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), a likely presidential candidate with an interest in the Ex-Im issue, and Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), a former U.S. trade representative in the Bush administration who faces a difficult reelection next year.

Obama sought to help his own cause by calling Cantwell during the vote in the Democratic cloakroom, a private room within the chamber where senators often hash out deals.

A Democratic source familiar with the call said Obama promised to press Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) to schedule a vote on the Export-Import Bank reauthorization.

McConnell then huddled in the well of the Senate floor with a group of pro-trade Democrats, including Cantwell, Murray and Sens. Bill Nelson (Fla.), Tom Carper (Del.), Heidi Heitkamp (N.D.) and Ron Wyden (Ore.), the ranking Democrat on the Finance Committee.

The breakthrough came when McConnell promised Cantwell that he would schedule a vote next month on an amendment authorizing the Export-Import Bank.

As soon as he did, Cantwell wheeled around and voted “Aye,” followed in quick succession by Murray, Heitkamp and Sens. Chris Coons (D-Del.) and Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.).

McConnell’s proposal also pushed Graham, who was also in the huddle, to vote yes.

Portman also voted yes after Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) promised him that he would ask for a unanimous consent agreement to vote on his amendment, which is meant to protect the U.S. steel industry from unfair trade practices. The amendment is co-sponsored by Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), who had led the charge against fast-track on the Senate floor.

In a 62-38 vote, fast-track’s supporters had won the biggest vote on trade in the Senate, clearing the table for a final vote that could come on Friday.

Senate sources said Murray was instrumental in putting together the final deal.

They said she helped persuade Cantwell to accept McConnell’s offer to promise a vote on the Export-Import Bank next month.

It’s also clear that Obama’s last-second lobbying and Boeing CEO Jim McNerney’s presence made a difference.

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Before the vote, President Obama and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) got help from an outside source: Boeing CEO Jim McNerney, who met Thursday morning with Democratic leaders and Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), a crucial swing vote.

McNerney asked Democrats to back the request to end debate on fast-track, which could help Obama complete a sweeping Asia-Pacific trade deal connecting the United States with countries in Latin America and Asia — and open markets and business opportunities for Boeing.

Boeing, which employs more than 80,000 people in Washington state, is also a big supporter of the Export-Import Bank, under attack from conservative Republicans.

Cantwell has been pushing for a Senate vote to extend the bank’s charter beyond June 30, when it is set to expire. The fast-track vote gave her leverage to try to make a deal.

Cantwell’s home-state colleague, Sen. Patty Murray (D), was also interested in getting a deal.

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The tough Senate vote is by no means the final chapter on fast-track and Obama’s trade agenda — or on the Export-Import Bank.

Boehner told reporters Thursday he would bring any legislation the Senate passes to reauthorize Ex-Im to the floor.

But he said it would then be open to an “open amendment process” allowing the House to “work its will.”

“That’s the only commitment that’s been made. There are a lot of options of what could happen,” he said.

House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) promised Portman that he would include his steel amendment in a customs and trade enforcement bill scheduled for debate in the House.

The amendment was included in the customs bill the Senate passed last week.

“This provision is a top priority of the House Steel Caucus and Sen. Portman, and Chairman Ryan has made a commitment to them to include it in the House customs and trade enforcement bill,” said Doug Andres, a spokesman for the Ways and Means Committee.

The Fast-Track trade bill will be approved by the Senate. The real action now moves to the House.


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