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Senate to Take Another Run at 'Fast Track' Trade Deal

The Senate voted to begin debate on giving President Obama “fast-track” authority to negotiate a massive 12-nation trade pact.
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The Senate voted Thursday to start consideration of a bill giving President Obama “fast-track” authority to negotiate a massive 12-nation trade pact.

The vote was 65-33 and passes the same motion that failed earlier this week because of a Democratic filibuster.

The vote comes on the heels of a showdown on Tuesday in which Senate Democrats blocked consideration of legislation giving the president so-called "fast track" authority to negotiate the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact without the threat of congressional filibusters or added amendments.

The trade accord is a key component of the president’s trade agenda and his economic legacy.

“This is personal for me. I understand the skepticism about this, or any, trade deal,” the president said in an email to supporters of his agenda on his Organizing for America mailing list following Tuesday’s vote. “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.”

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Democrats, including some the White House had hoped would lend their support, refused to budge unless they got a vote on a customs bill which includes currency manipulation and enforcement provisions that the Democratic caucus supports but many Republicans and the White House oppose. The Senate passed that measure as well as the African Growth and Opportunity Act — a non-controversial trade preference program focusing on sub-Saharan African nations on Thursday before a procedural vote to begin debate on “fast track” authority on trade.

Final consideration of “fast track” authority on trade is expected early next week.

The high-profile rift between the White House and some segments of the Democratic caucus highlights inter-party tensions as both sides have roundly chastised the other over their stances.

The White House characterized the Democratic pushback as part of a “procedural snafu” and sought to downplay the tension on Wednesday. Following Tuesday’s vote, a cadre of Senate Democrats were invited to the White House to figure out how to regroup.

“What we are focused on right now to work with Senate to find a credible path forward,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest told reporters on Wednesday. “These kinds of procedural snafus are not uncommon and happen on pieces of legislation that aren't controversial.”

Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-TX) called the move by Democrats to block Tuesday’s motion an example of “Democrat on Democrat violence,” and said he believed the meeting at the White House likely helped them get to today’s deal

“I think the so-called pro-trade Democrats had a chat with the President for a couple hours and I think that helped,” Cornyn said, “I wish he would have had that chat before the first failed cloture vote.”

The White House also faced criticism over the president’s back and forth with Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, a former Obama administration official turned legislator, who has been one of the most vocal critics of the president's handling of the trade accord — handling she says has lacked transparency. Obama and Warren’s disagreements over the trade matter spilled out in the press over the past few days with some Democrats calling the president’s comments “disrespectful.”

The Trans-Pacific Partnership, and the fast-track bill which must precede it, has deeply divided Democrats, and put Republicans in the unusual position of siding with the president. While the vast majority of Republicans support the trade pact, many Democrats oppose it saying it will cost American jobs and result in lowered middle class wages.

Some liberal Senators also criticized the president’s trip last week to Nike's headquarters in the liberal-leaning community of Portland to make the case for the trade deal. The company, critics said, and its hiring of inexpensive foreign labor underscores their worst concerns about the trade pact.

The White House hit back Wednesday at that criticism saying companies like Nike, when given opportunities, can create more jobs in the U.S.

The Senate will face a jammed packed agenda next week as Congress also needs to address reauthorizing or reforming the NSA's bulk data collection program, as well as federal transportation funding, both of which expire at the end of the month.

Congress is scheduled to be in recess the last week of May for Memorial Day.

— Frank Thorp V