Senate Democrats filibustered Tuesday to stop the first major free trade deal vote in years, administering an embarrassing setback to President Obama, who had pleaded with his own party to back him on his top domestic priority for his final years in office.
White House officials described the filibuster as a “snafu” and vowed Mr. Obama would prevail eventually, but the vote — which saw all but one Senate Democrat desert the president’s stance — quickly poisoned the atmosphere on Capitol Hill, where Republicans accused free trade Democrats of reneging on an agreement to at least begin the debate.
The president sent an email to his millions-long list of campaign supporters, pleading with them to trust him and embrace free trade, saying the fight has become “personal for me.”
But liberal groups, who have rallied against him, crowed over their victory, saying it’s proof that the “Warren wing” of the Democratic Party — backing progressive favorite Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts — was triumphing over the president.
Republicans, who watched with dismay as the trade deal faltered, said it’s up to the president to put the pieces back together.
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“Does the president of the United States have enough clout with members of his own political party to produce enough votes to get this bill debated and ultimately passed?” said Sen. John Cornyn, Texas Republican.
The White House, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other key backers saw the filibuster as a stumble rather than a fatal blow, and said they expect pro-free trade Democrats to try to find a way to work with the GOP to resurrect the issue.
“We live in an era of divided government,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest said. “For anything to become law, party-line votes are not going to cut it. They’re going to have to work through this challenge, and we’ll remain engaged with them as they do.”
Tuesday’s vote was on whether to begin debate of fast-track trade powers, known in Washington as trade promotion authority (TPA). The fast-track powers allow a president to negotiate trade deals with other countries, then submit them for up-or-down votes in Congress without having to worry about amendments. Analysts say that if Congress were allowed to amend deals, it would make it impossible to negotiate with other countries.
Mr. Obama is pressing for fast-track powers now so that he can finalize an Asian trade deal, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, that he’s negotiating with 11 other countries. A European trade deal could also be on the horizon.
But first he’ll have to win back Democrats who’ve balked, along with liberal pressure groups and labor unions — who are usually part of the president’s base constituency.
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“Free trade deals are about profits for corporate America — not bus drivers, hotel workers, teachers, firefighters — real working people,” said Larry Hanley, international president of the Amalgamated Transit Union, which represents transportation workers.
Tuesday’s vote fell seven shy of the 60 needed to overcome the filibuster. Only one Democrat, Sen. Thomas R. Carper of Delaware, voted with Republicans to advance the bill. He said he hopes both parties find a path forward.
After the stunning defeat, the White House hastily convened a meeting between Mr. Obama and 10 Senate Democrats, including Sens. Ron Wyden of Oregon, Patty Murray of Washington, Ben Cardin of Maryland, and Tim Kaine and Mark Warner of Virginia. The White House said the discussion was “constructive.”
The president and lawmakers “discussed the need to advance legislation to give the president the authority he needs to complete negotiations on the Trans-Pacific Partnership and enforce the agreement,” the White House said, adding that the lawmakers “reiterated their support” for TPA.
The statement said Mr. Obama and the senators “committed to continuing work on this important priority in order to ensure workers and businesses can compete on a level playing field in the global economy.”
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell used a parliamentary technique to be able to quickly schedule a do-over vote, but he now faces a time crunch given that the trade debate won’t begin on time, and he still has end-of-month deadlines on highway funding and on expiring provisions of the Patriot Act that must be addressed.
Tensions ran a little high Tuesday surrounding the vote. At one point Sen. Sherrod Brown, Ohio Democrat, asked special permission to speak for a minute to denounce the fast-track bill, and Sen. Roger F. Wicker, Mississippi Republican, objected to what is often a standard courtesy. Later, during the filibuster vote, Mr. Brown walked over to Mr. Wicker and asked him what the objection was all about.
“I was tired of listening,” Mr. Wicker replied, quickly ending the conversation.
Immediately after the filibuster, senators sparred over blame on the chamber floor, then Mr. McConnell and Mr. Cornyn shut proceedings down, sending the chamber into a recess for the rest of the afternoon.
Republicans said Tuesday’s vote was stunning because a handful of Democrats had voted for the fast-track bill in the Finance Committee just a couple of weeks ago, and the GOP thought it had a deal on how to bring to the floor the fast-track bill and a separate bill offering financial and training assistance to workers who lose jobs because of free trade.
Democrats this week, however, said they need to see two other bills — one promoting trade with African nations and another that stiffens U.S. customs enforcement — added to the package. Both of those bills cleared the Finance Committee at the same time as the fast-track and assistance legislation, but the GOP said they would come to the floor later.
“Until there is a path to get all four bills done, you’re going to see a number of pro-trade Democrats — Democrats who want to get this bill passed — you will see them vote no. I will be among them,” said Sen. Ron Wyden, the ranking Democrat on the Finance Committee, who voted for the fast-track bill in committee but supported the filibuster Tuesday.
Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid said all four bills should be rolled into one package. But that could kill the entire deal, since the customs bill contains a provision, added by a bipartisan majority vote in the Finance Committee, that requires the administration to punish countries deemed guilty of manipulating their currency for trade advantages.
Mr. Obama has said that provision would scuttle any trade agreements, and he doesn’t want it included. GOP leaders, eager to get fast track done, have accommodated the president. But Democrats have said they’ll take a stand.
Sen. Charles E. Schumer, a New York Democrat who has pressed for years to get the administration to cite China and other countries for currency manipulation, said he wants the White House to join Democrats, not fight them, on this issue.
Mr. Obama, in his email to supporters, dismissed the attacks from his erstwhile allies — including the more than 20 who served with him in the Senate — and urged his followers to trust that he hasn’t abandoned their interests as he pursues trade agreements.
“This is personal for me. I understand the skepticism about this, or any, trade deal. I’ve met folks across the country who still feel burned by agreements of the past. Those are the people I came to Washington to fight for,” the president said, vowing that he wouldn’t repeat the mistakes of past trade deals in his negotiations.
Republicans said Democrats were being dragged to the left by liberal pressure groups, and have called on former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton to take a stand in support of free trade, which the GOP said could help push Democrats on Capitol Hill. Implicit in that is a criticism of Mr. Obama’s ability, late in his second term, to win support.
Even if backers are able to clear the initial filibuster, getting the fast-track bill over the finish line is still a huge challenge. Some Senate Republicans who voted to begin debate Tuesday have said they are worried about the trade deals, and question whether Mr. Obama can be trusted to follow the priorities for agreements that Congress would write into the fast-track bill.
And the Senate was supposed to be the easy lift — House lawmakers from both parties are more skeptical of free trade deals.
The more GOP lawmakers that defect, the more Democrats Mr. Obama will have to deliver.
The White House, though, waved off suggestions that he was being neutered by his own party, saying that the battle for a free trade deal isn’t over yet.
“I would urge you to withhold judgment about the president’s persuasion ability,” Mr. Earnest, the White House spokesman, said.