How Senate broke logjam on 'fast track' trade bill

A controversial bill that would grant President Obama fast track authority to negotiate trade deals appeared to hit a wall – until senators hatched a surprising deal Thursday.

Evan Vucci/AP
Sen. Joni Ernst (R) of Iowa (c.), flanked by Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky (r.) and Sen. Mark Warner (D) of Virginia (l.), speaks during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington Tuesday to discuss the Trade Promotion Authority bill.

Senators can work late into the night trying to find a path out of a thicket, but sometimes it’s only at the last minute, on the Senate floor, that a deal comes together.

That’s what happened Thursday morning on the highly controversial issue of trade. A half-hour into a key procedural vote on President Obama’s premier initiative, the outlook did not look good for granting him “fast track” trade negotiating authority. 

More than 30 Democrats had lined up against Mr. Obama, while a scrum of senators from both parties huddled in the well, speaking with the majority leader, Sen. Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky. Others gathered on the periphery as the core group talked.

Suddenly, Sen. Maria Cantwell (D) of Washington spun around and registered a “yea” vote. More “yeas” quickly followed. The logjam was broken and the president got the 60-plus votes he needed to move ahead on a fast track bill, with passage expected soon.

Senator McConnell, exiting the chamber doors, declared, “A big win. We’re going forward. We’re going to finish the bill this week.”

What broke the dam?

“Always on a matter like this, it’s about two considerations: one, the specific issues that are being discussed, and second, trust,” said Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden, the Democrat co-sponsor of the trade package.

The specific deal was that majority leader McConnell assured Senator Cantwell of an opportunity in June to offer her bipartisan amendment to reauthorize the Export-Import Bank. The authorization for the 70-year-old federal export credit agency runs out June 30.

Good riddance, say many Republicans, including McConnell, who view the bank as corporate welfare. But Cantwell and others want to save the Ex-Im Bank as a key financier of exports and preserver of jobs.

Cantwell had hoped to salvage the bank by attaching reauthorization to a high-profile piece of must-pass legislation for the president, i.e., trade. McConnell and others wanted it out of the trade bill because it would upset the carefully negotiated package with the House, where passage is far from assured.

“Maria, who feels very strongly ... about the Export-Import Bank, wanted a clear path that there would be a vote soon,” said Sen. Bill Nelson (D) of Florida, who was in the scrum. “She was given that assurance by Senator McConnell.”

In other words, she and others trusted McConnell’s promise of a timely vote.

This is not the first time that the Senate has backed out of a dead end. Earlier bills, one to help victims of human trafficking, and another to grant congressional review of any Iran deal, came to a screeching halt, as senators looked for room to maneuver.

What has allowed them to steer away from impasse is the simple realization that to clear major legislation, they have to find common ground – because neither side has the 60 votes needed to overcome a filibuster, Senator Wyden told reporters.

“It’s pretty clear to me that a growing number of senators are aware that you really have a choice,” he said, referring to this year's legislative stop-and-go traffic.

Without 60 votes, “you can either try to pursue a coalition,” he said, or “basically just say we’re going to go off in our respective corners and everybody can spend their time looking for rotten fruit to throw at the other person.”

Senators want to get things done, he said. 

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