- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 21, 2015

Braving their party’s liberal wing, pro-trade Democrats joined Republicans on Thursday to head off a filibuster and put the Senate on course to approve fast-track trade negotiating powers for President Obama, delivering an impressive win on the White House’s biggest domestic priority.

A final vote is expected Friday, with some potentially tricky amendments still looming, but the 62-38 tally to surmount the filibuster was the key test, and free-traders won it only after a half-hour’s worth of deal-making on the Senate floor cleared a last roadblock.

“Our nation’s economic health and prestige are on the line today,” said Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, Utah Republican and chairman of the Finance Committee, who led the floor debate on passing the bill known as Trade Promotion Authority. The bill would allow Mr. Obama to conclude trade deals he has been trying to negotiate.

A half-dozen Democrats and two Republicans held out until the last minute in an attempt to win concessions from GOP leaders — particularly on the Export-Import Bank, a New Deal-era program that provides financing for businesses that sell products overseas.

Conservatives are increasingly angling for the bank, known colloquially as Ex-Im, to fade away, but senators from states with big manufacturers dependent on the bank, such as Washington-based Boeing Co., conditioned their support for the free trade agreement on trying to continue the bank.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, promised to find time for a vote on the bank ahead of its expiration at the end of next month. That was enough to sway cloture.

Sen. Maria Cantwell, a Washington Democrat who held out for better treatment for Ex-Im, said the details remain to be worked out but Mr. Obama promised that ensuring the bank’s continuation “will be a priority” for him.

The trade fight has deeply divided the parties and left Mr. Obama, whose legislative record has been thin in recent years, relying on Republicans to deliver most of the votes.

Yet Mr. Obama has now twice come up big in delivering Democrats to surmount two filibusters in as many weeks.

“The president is all in on this issue — there’s no other way to describe it,” said Sen. Ron Wyden, the Oregon Democrat who worked with Mr. Hatch on the Trade Promotion Authority bill. He said Mr. Obama called him late Wednesday to strategize.

At the White House, Mr. Obama made another pitch for free trade and thanked the bipartisan group of senators who voted to advance his priority. He said he has worked to make sure deals reached on his watch put emphasis on higher labor and environmental standards in other countries.

“It’s an agenda that’s good for U.S. businesses, but most importantly, good for American workers,” he said at a meeting with his Cabinet.

Trade Promotion Authority is the tool Mr. Obama needs to finish trade deals, including the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a negotiation about lowering barriers in 11 nations circling the Pacific Ocean. If Mr. Obama is granted fast-track powers, he would be able to finalize the Trans-Pacific Partnership while keeping Congress in the loop, and then submit the deal for an up-or-down vote on a firm timetable.

Opponents say Trade Promotion Authority doesn’t give enough transparency and have blasted the secrecy surrounding the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations. They argue that freer trade has cost U.S. jobs, and without being able to see details of the Trans-Pacific Partnership now, there is no way to guarantee the next round will be better.

Liberal pressure groups vowed to continue their fight against Trade Promotion Authority and blasted the 13 Democrats who sided with Republicans.

“If Democrats fail to retake the Senate in 2016, a great deal of the responsibility will lie at the feet of the Democratic senators who set fire to our party’s credibility,” said Jim Dean, chairman of Democracy for America, one of the pressure groups.

Mr. Dean said the battle now shifts to the House, where the free trade wing of the Democratic Party is smaller, and a sizable number of Republicans are skeptical of giving Mr. Obama any enhanced powers.

Before that, the Senate needs to deal with a number of amendments. Lawmakers were negotiating what proposals would earn votes in the hours before a final tally on the bill.

Hundreds of amendments were filed, but only a handful will end up getting votes by the time the bill is finished. That angered Democratic and Republican opponents, who complained that Republican leaders were short-circuiting an important debate.

“We’ve had too few amendments,” said Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, who was one of five Republicans to join the Democrats’ filibuster.

He argued that fast-track powers would create an opening for Mr. Obama to increase the number of guest workers in the U.S. Top trade officials have said they don’t envision using the agreement for immigration, but given this administration’s history and use of executive power on immigration, Mr. Sessions doesn’t trust them.

One amendment that is likely to get a vote is a proposal to insist that the administration find ways to punish trade partners deemed guilty of manipulating currency to gain an advantage in exports. Countries that artificially keep their currencies low make their exports cheaper and imports tougher, helping boost their trade balance.

Mr. Obama has said that currency provisions in Trade Promotion Authority would be a poison pill that would scuttle a deal.

The Republicans who voted to continue the filibuster were Sens. Susan M. Collins of Maine, Mike Lee of Utah, Rand Paul of Kentucky, Richard C. Shelby of Alabama and Mr. Sessions.

The Democrats besides Mr. Wyden and Ms. Cantwell who voted to advance the trade bill were Sens. Michael F. Bennet of Colorado, Thomas R. Carper and Christopher A. Coons of Delaware, Dianne Feinstein of California, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, Tim Kaine and Mark Warner of Virginia, Claire McCaskill of Missouri, Patty Murray of Washington, Bill Nelson of Florida and Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire.

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