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Trade bill has uncertain future in Congress despite Obama, GOP support

The scaffolded US Capitol Dome is seen October 28, 2014 in Washington, DC, as it undergoes its first comprehensive repairs in more than half a century.

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When Republicans secured control of Congress by winning a majority of the Senate in 2014, GOP leaders named trade as a top priority. They had a rare moment of agreement with President Obama that Congress should pass legislation that would expedite passage of a massive free-trade bill with the Asia-Pacific region.

The Senate will officially vote on whether to take up Trade Promotion Authority (TPA), which would give the president more negotiating power, requiring Congress to vote yes or no on the entire Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) when the president submits it to Congress. Lawmakers would forego the ability to change individual provisions. If the president isn't granted this authority, it will be far more difficult for him to make any progress on either TPP or the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP).

It appeared to be smooth sailing for the legislation when it passed the Senate Finance Committee on a vote of 20 to 6 at the end of April. But Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada, an ardent opponent of free-trade deals, is threatening to block the full Senate from taking up the bill - and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, won't get the 60 votes he needs if all 44 Democrats stick together.

At first, Reid objected to taking up a trade bill before finishing work on a transportation bill that will fund the nation's highways and another measure dealing with reforms to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, both of which come with an expiration date within weeks. Now, he insists that TPA be packaged with three other bills: a customs bill that cracks down on Chinese currency manipulation, child labor, and unfair trading practices; Trade Adjustment Assistance, which compensates American workers adversely affected by trade deals; and the African Growth and Opportunity Act.

"I feel that if it's going to be fair, they have to be brought together in the one piece of legislation," Reid told reporters at a press conference last week. "I'm not going to stand by and allow them to pass TPA and leave the others blowing in the breeze. That would be unfair."

Democrats who support the trade agreement are more flexible than Reid is, but still want to see a way forward for the other three pieces of legislation. The top Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee, Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden, wants a guarantee that all of the bills will become law, but has not said they have to be tied together. If McConnell makes no such guarantee, Wyden is likely to vote against beginning debate on TPA and take the other pro-free-trade Democrats with him.

Meanwhile, Republicans could balk if all four pieces of legislation are packaged together. Conservatives are already wary of giving Mr. Obama the authority to craft a trade deal that cannot be amended by Congress. And Heritage Action, an outside conservative group, opposes the part of the bill that would compensate American workers adversely affected by trade deals.

"Heritage Action has always been a free trade organization, but free-market conservatives are understandably split on this president's request for fast track authority. Including an egregiously ineffective welfare program in a bill intended to promote trade will only exacerbate the problem. Conservatives should oppose any effort to combine these two bills," CEO Michael Needham said in a statement Monday.

Then there's the White House, which has warned that the legislation to crack down on currency manipulation could undermine the deal and the independence of the Federal Reserve.

Asked whether the president would veto a TPA bill that included a measure on currency provision, White House Spokesman Josh Earnest said, "I'm not willing to make that commitment at this point."

McConnell has not yet revealed how exactly he will proceed. But he's been unusually supportive of the president through trade negotiations, telling reporters last week, "At the risk of having some of you literally faint, I want to compliment the president for the way he's handling the trade issue."

That's just the Senate side, where passing the fast-track authority was supposed to be easy. If a TPA bill makes it to the House, it would face renewed opposition from wary conservatives and Democrats.

"We continue to be in the member outreach and education phase, and that will continue while the Senate moves first," House Ways and Means Committee Spokesman Brendan Buck said. "We remain confident we will provide a strong number, but, as always, will need Democrats to deliver as well."

But Democrats who oppose the Trans-Pacific Partnership have spent months whipping up opposition to trade promotion authority. A senior Democratic aide said the number of House Democrats who support TPA is estimated at less than 20.

Despite a vigorous campaign to build support for the bill by Ways and Means Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wisconsin, Politico reports that more than 60 House Republicans would vote against a fast-track bill. That means at least 30 Democrats would need to vote in favor to get it to the president's desk.

  • Rebecca Kaplan

    Rebecca Kaplan is a political reporter for CBSNews.com.