- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Pro-trade senators surmounted yet another filibuster test Tuesday, setting a package of free-trade bills on the path to President Obama’s desk by the end of this week — unless House Democrats decide to embarrass their party leader once more.

The Senate’s 60-37 vote showed the bipartisan pro-trade coalition is holding in the Senate, and that House Democrats’ opposition hasn’t poisoned things in the upper chamber.

Indeed, it’s the second time in about a month that the Senate has been poised to approve so-called fast-track negotiating powers for Mr. Obama.

“Today is a big vote,” said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican. “It sets in motion the completion of a project we set out on months ago.”

That project is a package of four bills, which constitute the trade agenda Mr. Obama and GOP leaders have agreed upon: Renewal of trade preferences for African nations; legislation to stiffen enforcement of existing trade agreements; a package of assistance for workers displaced by free trade; and the fast-track powers, which will be key to the president completing a Pacific Rim trade deal with 11 other countries.

Final passage of the fast-track powers, known as Trade Promotion Authority or TPA, will come Wednesday, followed by another vote to stop a filibuster on the worker-assistance package, which will be coupled with the African trade preferences. The enforcement bill will likely be finalized in July.

The fast-track bill would go straight to the president, since it passed the House last week. The worker assistance would need to go back to the House for a final showdown, giving liberal Democrats one last chance to try to scuttle the trade package.

Democrats complained about the convoluted procedure, which has been fostered by their own parliamentary maneuvering — but which they said left no assurances that workers will end up with the assistance they need.

“We make decisions here today that throw people out of work — we know that,” said Sen. Sherrod Brown, an Ohio Democrat and fierce opponent of free trade. “But we today don’t do anything to help those workers.”

For his part, Mr. Obama has insisted all of the parts of the package must reach his desk, saying it’s up to GOP leaders to round up the votes to make sure all of the components — including the worker assistance — reach his desk.

White House press secretary Josh Earnest wouldn’t say what Mr. Obama would do if only the fast-track powers clear.

“It is the president’s intent to sign both of these pieces of legislation into law,” Mr. Earnest told reporters.

The plan had been for Democrats to provide most of the votes to pass the worker assistance, and for Republicans to do the heavy lifting on the fast-track legislation, and have them both pass that way. But Democrats, led by House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, realized they could scuttle that deal by voting against the worker assistance — despite having supported it before.

GOP leaders hope to overcome that resistance by tying the worker support to the African trade preferences legislation.

But liberal pressure groups have vowed to punish any Democrats whose votes help pass the trade package, calling it a “betrayal” of party principles.

“This vote will be remembered, it will not be erased, and we will hold you accountable,” warned Jim Dean, head of Democracy for America.

Tuesday’s Senate vote saw just one change from last month — Sen. Ted Cruz, Texas Republican and a presidential candidate, switched from a supporter to an opponent. In an op-ed for Breitbart.com, he accused GOP leaders of “secret deals” with Mr. Obama, made since his initial vote, that soured things for him.

“There’s too much corporate welfare, too much cronyism and corrupt dealmaking, by the Washington cartel,” Mr. Cruz wrote.

• Stephen Dinan can be reached at sdinan@washingtontimes.com.

• Ben Wolfgang can be reached at bwolfgang@washingtontimes.com.

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