Behind on-again, off-again trade deal, glimpse of Senate theater

On Tuesday, Senate Democrats blocked the trade bill President Obama wants. On Wednesday, they found a way forward. But there was a point behind the pique.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP/File
Sen. Sherrod Brown (D) Ohio, seen here on Capitol Hill in Washington last year, was among the Democrats who blocked action on President Obama's trade initiatives Tuesday. A compromise emerged Wednesday.

It was just one day ago that storm clouds burst over the Senate, soaking President Obama’s trade initiative. All but one Democrat voted Tuesday to block debate on a controversial “fast track” bill Tuesday.

Yet on Wednesday afternoon, senators broke out the sunglasses. A deal to move forward and vote on a package of trade bills was announced.

How did the Senate get from umbrellas to Ray-Bans so quickly?

Perhaps because the political momentum was with the president all along. Beneath the changing legislative forecasts, Senate support for fast track is solid. More senators than not want to give Mr. Obama the authority he seeks to better negotiate a historic trade agreement with 11 Pacific Rim nations. But it took a blow-up – for political point scoring, for leverage, for airing of grievances – to make that support obvious.

“The president, the majority leader, 14 very committed pro-trade Democrats all made it clear that we were absolutely committed to getting it done. Now that’s pretty good material to work with,” Sen. Ron Wyden (D) of Oregon told reporters after the deal was announced. Senator Wyden was the lead Democrat negotiator with Republicans on trade.

A clue as to how this would turn out was the relaxed comment Tuesday by White House spokesman Josh Earnest that the Senate was experiencing merely a “procedural snafu” on fast track, says Ross Baker, a political scientist at Rutgers University in Brunswick, N.J. “That's not a comment you make when all is lost,” Mr. Baker says in an e-mail.

Indeed, Wyden said that efforts to find a path forward began almost immediately after Tuesday’s unified revolt by Democrats against their president.

“From 15 minutes yesterday after the vote until the time I clicked the light off last night very late and then turned it back on very early, the discussions have been nonstop on trade with Democrats and Republicans,” the senator said.

Those talks included Wyden’s Republican counterpart on the Senate Finance Committee, Chairman Orrin Hatch (R) of Utah, majority leader Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky, minority leader Harry Reid (D) of Nevada, and the president – who had a group of pro-trade Democrats over to the White House after the embarrassing vote on Tuesday. He wanted to get them back on track.

“He was masterful,” said Sen. Tom Carper (D) of Delaware, the only Democrat on Tuesday to vote in favor of debating the fast track bill, which allows Congress only an up-or-down vote on a final trade agreement.

“I know he wasn’t happy,” Senator Carper told reporters, but “he wasn’t angry. No temper tantrums.” He was at his best, said Carper, offering a compelling “tutorial” on the value of trade agreements, on the touchy issue of currency manipulation, and on where China – which is not part of the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement – fits in. 

Carper praised the president’s ability to cajole, with humor, and to nudge. “I think it greatly enhanced the likelihood that we’ll prevail,” he said.

When asked what had led to the revolt in the first place, the senator mentioned two political reasons: First was the need for Democrats to vote “no” and thus block – at least temporarily – a bill that is strongly opposed by labor unions and many Democratic voters. Second was the need to send a message to Republicans: “Don’t take us for granted,” and “You’re not going to roll us.”

Other factors were at play, as well. It’s no secret that progressive Democrats want to kill fast track. But liberal Democrat Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio says he wanted to strengthen the bill, even though he says he never plans to vote for it.

Since the Senate Finance Committee passed four trade bills in a late-night session on April 22, Senator Brown has been heavily lobbying his fellow Democrats to insist that the Senate vote on all four bills at the same time. That package would include a bill that address currency manipulation – something the Obama administration considers a "poison pill."

Foreign countries that deliberately devalue their currencies make their exports cheaper, and thus cost Americans jobs. But the White House says a currency enforcement provision would derail its international trade negotiations – and could spark trade wars, not to mention restricting America’s ability to manage its own money supply.

But Brown would not relent, and he was very convincing.

“I wasn’t trying the kill the bill,” he told reporters on Wednesday. “This was just saying, 'You don’t let this get to the president’s desk without help for workers and without trade enforcement.' ” 

But the four-in-one package insisted on by Democrats Tuesday was not the original plan, according to Senator Hatch. The original agreement, said the very upset senator, was to vote on the bill with the troublesome currency provision later.

“I expect people to keep their word,” he steamed on Tuesday, more than once saying how disappointed he was in the broken agreement with Wyden.

But by Wednesday, there was a shift. “This was not a kerfuffle. This was a serious incident,” he said. “But we’re going to get over it.”

Not long afterward, a path forward on the bills was announced.

According to the deal, the leverage applied by Brown and others had an effect. On Thursday, the Senate will vote on two bills, including the currency-related one. After that, senators will vote to begin debate on fast track, including assistance for displaced workers. So, while currency is not part of the fast-track vote, it is not left by the wayside, either.

“This is a much better deal than we would have gotten yesterday if we’d voted yes,” Brown said Wednesday.

As for the future of fast track, it is expected eventually to pass in the Senate, though a heavy lift awaits the president in the House.

“It was important for Democrats to get on the record as opposed to the original bill in order to appease disgruntled progressives and unionists,” says Mr. Baker. Tuesday’s thunder and lightning “was a great exercise in performance art for the benefit of alienated progressives with a cameo appearance by the president.”

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