WASHINGTON — In a burst of bipartisanship, the Republican-controlled Senate put President Barack Obama’s trade agenda back on course Thursday, clearing the way for likely approval within days of legislation allowing the administration to negotiate global deals that Congress could support or reject but not change.
The 65-33 vote to resurrect the measure capped two days of political intrigue in which Democrats on both sides of the legislation initially joined forces to block action, then reached agreement with Republicans for votes on other enforcement measures to protect workers who lose jobs as a result of exports.
The White House swiftly hailed the vote, saying the bill’s passage would lead to “high-standard trade agreements that are good for the U.S. economy, businesses, farmers, innovators and workers, and would extend and enhance” aid for workers harmed by trade.
There are battles ahead, though.
Hours earlier, the White House registered its objections to a provision in a companion measure that cleared the Senate during the day on a 78-20 vote. It would require the imposition of tariffs on products from countries that artificially set the level of their currency, a practice that makes it harder for U.S. firms to compete and results in the loss of jobs in this country.
The provision would undermine existing efforts to respond to China and other alleged violators and “lead to other countries pursuing retaliatory measures that could hurt our exporters,” the White House said. Even so, Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., a prominent sponsor of the proposal, predicted it might eventually prove essential in persuading enough skeptical House Democrats to swing behind the trade bill itself to assure final passage.
The day’s events only underscored the unusual alignment of political forces at work on the legislation to provide so-called “fast-track” authority to Obama at a time when the administration is seeking to negotiate separate trade deals with 12 nations that border the Pacific Ocean, as well as with European Union countries.
An initial attempt Tuesday to begin debate on the trade bill was foiled by Democrats, who complained that Senate Republicans would not agree in advance to allow votes on the currency manipulation and other related measures at the same time.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., disputed charges that he had reneged on an earlier agreement, and he noted pointedly that while Republicans were cooperating with the president, Democrats were causing him grief.
“President Obama has done his country a service by taking on his (political) base and pushing back on some of the more ridiculous rhetoric we’ve heard,” he said a few hours before the day’s votes.
Not everyone sounded as pleased.
Sen. Bernie Sanders, a Vermont independent running for the Democratic presidential nomination, said the legislation would lead to a trade deal like others in recent years that have “cost us millions of decent-paying jobs and have led us to a race to the bottom, where American workers are forced to compete against workers in low-wage countries who are making pennies an hour.”
The 65-33 vote to begin formal debate on the bill was five more than the 60 needed. A total of 52 Republicans and 13 Democrats voted in favor.
Across the Capitol, Speaker John Boehner said the House will consider the legislation once the Senate finishes. “Republicans are going to do our part. Ultimately, however, success is going to require the Democrats putting aside politics and doing what’s best for our country,” he said.
He spoke at a news conference shortly after House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi of California told reporters that the bill’s fate would mark a test of leadership for Boehner — a standard she did not set for Obama.
Pelosi has yet to say how she will vote on the bill, but she has said repeatedly she and her party wants to “find a path to yes.” In a news conference and a written statement issued later in the day, she called for a change to limit the bill’s duration to three years, rather than a maximum of six currently envisioned.
“While three years in the Trade Promotion Authority bill may be appropriate for foreseeable trade agreements, there is unease with a process that would provide carte blanche for agreements unknown, for countries to be determined, for a time in perpetuity,” she said.
A shorter bill would permit Obama to exercise so-called “fast track” authority on deals under negotiation with Pacific Ocean nations and the European Union. But it would require his successor to return to Congress for a renewal of the power for any future agreements.
Ironically, Pelosi’s proposal would erase one of the bill’s selling points with rank-and-file House Republicans, who are highly reluctant to grant new authority solely to Obama and who hope he is replaced by a member of their own party.
The currency provision was part of a bill designed to enforce trade deals.
Also included was a requirement for the Customs and Border Protection agency to “address concerns that honey is being imported into the United States” illegally.