Senate Democrats Deal Setback to Obama’s Pacific Trade Plan

Effort to ‘fast track’ trade pact fails to clear important hurdle.

BEAVERTOWN, OR - MAY 8: President Barack Obama speaks to Nike Employees and other Oregonians at Nike Headquarters May 8, 2015 in Beaverton, Oregon. Obama spoke about the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pacts which include the U.S. in a trade agreement with 11 other nations. (Photo by Natalie Behring/Getty Images)

Senate Democrats stalled President Barack Obama’s trade agenda Tuesday, bucking his ambitious plans to increase U.S. exports in favor of labor unions and tougher protections for overseas workers.

In a 52-45 vote, the Senate failed to get enough votes to open debate on so-called “fast-track” legislation that sought to speed approval of the 12-nation Trade Promotion Authority without last-minute congressional meddling. Instead, Tuesday’s vote — which fell short because it lacked support among Obama’s fellow Democrats — potentially creates a new stumbling block for ongoing negotiations with Pacific Rim countries grappling with the most aggressive trade agreement in decades.

Democrats who oppose the Trans-Pacific Partnership have pushed for added enforcement measures in the deal to protect against potentially unfair advantages, such as currency manipulation in Japan or poor labor laws in Vietnam.

“Free trade can be good for the United States, but only if it is done right — leveling the playing field for all workers; protecting workers’ rights, human rights, and the environment; and addressing serious imbalances including currency manipulation,” Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) said in a statement after he voted against the motion to begin debating the bill.

Now, the White House and Republicans may have to agree to add some of those provisions in order to get the “fast track” bill out of the Senate. But that might not go over well with the rest of Washington’s negotiating partners. Adding requirements that could be seen as chiding other countries may undermine U.S. trade officials’ ability to deliver a deal.

Another major criticism from opponents is that the negotiations haven’t been subject to public view.

“The president is asking us to vote to grease the skids on a trade deal that has largely been negotiated but that is still held in secret,” Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) said in an interview with NPR news before the vote.

The trade agreement, along with another European pact, are both part of the Obama administration’s ambitious agenda to lower barriers for U.S. companies abroad and increase exports. But trade negotiations have faced stiff opposition from unions, many liberal lawmakers, and some Americans who associate trade pacts with job losses that happened across the country as globalization spurred outsourcing over the past few decades. Vocal opponents have argued that another trade pact will again leave U.S. workers worse off.

“The reason this went badly for them is that enough senators listened to the folks back home who have been telling them that they don’t want to make it easier to ship jobs overseas,” said Jason Stanford, spokesman for the Coalition to Stop Fast Track.

The trade negotiations have gotten the support from Hollywood and other big industries. Music moguls and movie-makers are hoping the deal will include beefed-up copyright protection that could prove lucrative for the struggling industry. Other industrial giants, from consumer products companies to Wall Street banks, also see the TPP’s intellectual property provisions as key selling points in a regional trade pact that could bring together an estimated $27 trillion worth of economic activity.

The Trans-Pacific Partnership, in particular, is seen as a key piece of the Obama administration’s rebalancing to the Asia-Pacific region. U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said last month that the trade pact is worth as much to U.S. prospects in the region as a new aircraft carrier. Analysts have recently called for Washington to promote ambitious trade deals with partners and allies in Asia, while excluding China, to strengthen America’s ability to push back against Beijing’s growing financial and military might.

Natalie Behring/Getty Images

 Twitter: @jtrindle
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