The Cable

How Obama Defeated His Own Party to Win Fast-Track Trade Authority

The Senate gave Obama fast-track trade authority, making the Trans-Pacific Partnership all but inevitable.

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Less than two weeks ago, House Democrats turned on the White House and refused to give President Barack Obama the ability to quickly push through trade bills. As of Tuesday, the White House can claim victory over the inter-party insurgency that teamed with Tea Party Republicans in a losing effort to scuttle the president’s trade agenda.

The Senate rejected a filibuster threat and voted 60 to 37 to end debate on the Trade Promotion Authority bill. That’s more than enough votes to pass the overall measure, which gives the president fast-track authority on trade deals and could be on Obama’s desk as soon as Wednesday.

That means Obama’s push to enact the Trans-Pacific Partnership — the largest trade deal in U.S. history, covering 40 percent of the global economy — is all but a sure thing. It also means a related trade assistance program to help American workers negatively affected by jobs moving overseas, something precious to Democrats, is up in the air.

To counter a June 12 rebellion by House Democrats against the 12-nation Asian trade deal, negotiated in secret over the last five years, Republicans separated the fast-track authority from the trade assistance program. Pro-trade Republicans have promised to reconsider the assistance program once Obama gets fast-track authority. Democrats need the GOP on board to make sure it goes through.

At a Tuesday afternoon briefing following the vote, White House spokesman Josh Earnest made clear that getting Obama’s legacy-defining trade deal done was a priority. Asked three times, he refused to say whether the president would sign the fast-track bill if the trade assistance package doesn’t pass.

These comments are likely to add salt to Democratic wounds. The president shunned many within his own party by teaming up with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) last week to push his trade agenda through. Boehner, for his part, publicly berated Republicans who opposed the deal and kicked three members off the GOP whip team for not toeing the party line.

That leaves Democrats, labor unions, and environmental groups — all traditional allies of the president — out in the cold. They fear the deal would ship American jobs overseas and loosen environmental regulations.

It’s also a blow to GOP lawmakers associated with the Tea Party, like Republican Reps. Duncan Hunter of California and David McKinley of West Virginia, who aligned themselves with traditionally left-leaning groups in an effort to kill the administration’s trade agenda.

“This was a day of celebration in the corporate suites in this country,” Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) said on the Senate floor after the vote.

The AFL-CIO, which has been leading organized labor’s effort to oppose the bill, did not return a request for comment on the Senate vote.

A new tally of Americans show them to be on the president’s side. A Pew poll released Tuesday shows 49 percent of Americans believe the TPP is a good thing, compared to 29 percent who are more pessimistic.

It also looks to be an inevitability, now that Obama can seize the power to push it through.

Photo credit: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

David Francis was a senior reporter for Foreign Policy, where he covered international finance. @davidcfrancis

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