The Senate voted 60 to 37 Tuesday to advance a bill that will fast-track the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) through Congress and could salvage President Obama's trade agenda. The legislation is likely to pass a final vote Wednesday.
Although senators voted to advance the fast-track bill, known as Trade Promotion Authority (TPA), last month, their initial efforts died in the House when many Democrats joined together to block a program to aid workers whose jobs are displaced by trade. Though Democrats traditionally support the program, known as Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA), they voted it down as a way to stall the trade bill in its tracks. It was a major blow to President Obama.
House Republicans attempted to revive the trade deal last week by separating the fast track and worker assistance bills. TPA passed the House last week with minimal Democratic support, and there was doubt about whether the Democrats who had voted in favor of TPA the first time would do so again without the guarantee that it included worker assistance.
Republican leaders promised that both bills will get a vote in the hopes that that Democrats could be convinced to support worker protections if they know that the trade bill will move forward with or without them.
"We remain committed to ensuring that both TPA and TAA are passed and enacted into law," House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said in a statement Tuesday morning. "The House will consider TAA once it passes the Senate as part of a new trade preferences bill. And we are ready to go to conference on the customs bill. Our goal is to get TPA and TAA to the president's desk this week and deliver this win for the American people."
In a press conference Tuesday afternoon, McConnell pledged to take up and pass TAA on the Senate side as well.
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McConnell had little room for error on Tuesday's vote after Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who is also a Republican presidential candidate, announced Tuesday that he had changed his mind about TPA.
"As a general matter, I agree (as did Ronald Reagan) that free trade is good for America; when we open up foreign markets, it helps American farmers, ranchers, and manufacturers," Cruz wrote on conservative website Breitbart Big Government. "But TPA in this Congress has become enmeshed in corrupt Washington backroom deal-making, along with serious concerns that it would open up the potential for sweeping changes in our laws that trade agreements typically do not include."
In addition to Cruz, four other Republicans voted no: Susan Collins of Maine, Jeff Sessions and Richard Shelby of Alabama and Rand Paul of Kentucky, another presidential candidate. Two other Republican senators -- Bob Corker of Tennessee and Mike Lee of Utah -- did not vote.
In a rare role reversal, Republicans are working with Mr. Obama to pass the trade deal over the objections of Democrats. The bill before the Senate Tuesday got the support of just thirteen Democratic senators, less than a third of the caucus.
"I've enjoyed working with the president on this issue. Hopefully, we can find some other things that we can agree on to work on together during his remaining year- and-a-half in office," McConnell told reporters. Tuesday.
People on both sides of the debate have been working passionately to get their way. On Monday, actor Mark Ruffalo jumped into the fray with a long statement detailing his objections to the trade bill.
"We cannot allow a trade deal that will put corporate profits above our climate, clean air, and water protections," he concluded. "I'm calling on our leaders to remember: We all share the same earth and breathe the same air. Vote no on Fast Track Authority."
Mr. Obama, for his part, is only expected to sign the fast-track legislation into law if it includes the worker protections. When asked if the president would be willing to take half the loaf, even if it's the half he wants, White House spokesman Josh Earnest said the answer is no.
The president has been working to build support for the trade bill among members of his own party after House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-California, led the revolt against TPA earlier this month. Mr. Obama met with pro-trade Democrats from the House and Senate Wednesday and one member who attended the gathering, Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Virginia, told reporters at the White House that the president had a quiet confidence that the new legislative path for the measure would prevail.