WASHINGTON – Senators of both parties worked Wednesday to revive trade legislation that’s a top priority for President Barack Obama, a day after Obama’s fellow Democrats repudiated him nearly unanimously on the issue.
Despite intense lobbying by Obama, every Democratic senator except one, Delaware’s Tom Carper, voted on Tuesday against moving forward on the legislation to award the president “fast track” authority to negotiate trade deals that can pass Congress without being amended. The vote failed 52-45, falling eight short of the 60 votes needed and dealing a stinging setback to the centerpiece of Obama’s second-term economic agenda, his hopes for a landmark pact with Asian nations.
The administration moved quickly to resurrect the legislation, summoning key Democrats to the White House after the vote to discuss possible strategies. Democrats said they had agreed to drop a contentious provision aimed at cracking down on countries that manipulate their currency, and Republicans were weighing the offer Wednesday.
“Look, we want to have a serious discussion. We want to actually get a good policy outcome. That’s always been our goal,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConell, R-Ky., said in a floor speech Wednesday. “I hope more will now join us to allow debate on the trade discussion our constituents deserve.”
Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., appeared on the floor a few minutes after McConnell to say: “We have put a reasonable offer on the table for Senate Republicans to accept. All the Republican leader needs to do is say ‘yes’ and we can open debate on these trade bills.”
In the House, which is waiting for the Senate to move first on trade, Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, told reporters: “At the end of the day I think there’s a majority in both the House and the Senate for giving the president” the authority he is seeking to conclude trade deals.
The outcome of Tuesday’s Senate vote stunned the Capitol and highlighted Democratic divisions on trade heading into a presidential election year with control of the Senate at stake. Obama says it’s essential for U.S. goods and services to have easier access to other countries in a globalizing economy, while many Democrats and the labour unions that back them still feel the pain of job losses they blame on earlier trade deals and fear more could be yet to come.
The vote also laid bare the strained relations between Obama and Democrats on Capitol Hill, who have spent years complaining of neglect by a president who tends grudgingly, if at all, to the relationship-building aspects of politics.
The president’s tough sell on the trade legislation included Oval Office meetings, flights on Air Force One, promises of political support and concerted outreach by officials from Vice-President Joe Biden on down. Obama mounted a public relations campaign to exert pressure, attacking his Democratic opponents as “wrong” in interviews and speeches, and even directly engaging liberal standard-bearer Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, dismissing her over the weekend as “a politician like everybody else.”
None of it worked. And for a president grasping for a final legacy achievement in the waning years of his administration, with Congress fully controlled by the opposition party, his inability to gather more than a sole Democratic supporter to move forward stood as an embarrassing rebuke.
“It is the president’s party,” said GOP Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah. “It’s amazing to me that they would do this to the president on a bill of this magnitude.”
The White House downplayed the turmoil.
“It is not unprecedented, to say the least, for the United States Senate to encounter procedural snafus,” Press Secretary Josh Earnest said ahead of the vote. “I would urge you to withhold judgment about the president’s persuasion ability until we’ve had an opportunity to try to advance this piece of legislation through the Senate.”
There are a half-dozen or more Democrats who are prepared to support the trade legislation, but the issue got caught in a procedural thicket in recent days as Democrats claimed Republicans had agreed to package several related trade measures together, including the currency piece and other worker protections. Republicans insisted there’d been no such deal, and Democrats privately grumbled Tuesday that the White House should have gotten involved in sorting out the mess but refused to, believing enough Democratic supporters could be picked off.
Several Democrats also complained about Obama’s attacks on members of his own party and his criticism of Warren. Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio, a strong opponent on trade, called it “disrespectful.”
For others, Obama’s courtship, coming without a deep reservoir of support to build on, had simply failed to persuade.
Sen. Chris Coons of Delaware, who was elected in 2010, said he had never set foot in the Oval Office as a senator before he and other lawmakers met with Obama there last week on trade.
“Any time an administration is seeking to advance its objectives,” Coons said, “broad and deep relationships are helpful.”
Associated Press writers Charles Babington and David Espo contributed to this report.