Senate Democrats on Tuesday stood up to President Barack Obama and blocked legislation that would give him the power to negotiate trade agreements that cannot be amended by Congress, even as Senate Republicans voted for the measure.
The Senate held a procedural vote on a bill to give Obama that authority, one that needed 60 votes to keep the bill alive. But the Senate couldn't reach that threshold, and instead held a mostly party-line 52-45 vote.
In the short term, the vote dashes Obama's immediate hope of bolstering his economy legacy, and will force supporters of so-called trade promotion authority, or TPA, to explore other ways to advance the bill. Just before the vote, White House spokesman Josh Earnest was calling the expected result a "procedural snafu."
Earlier in the day, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said a vote for the bill would help open up foreign markets to U.S.-made goods, and said it's a jobs bill. "It's a chance to stand with Americans for economic growth, opportunity, and good jobs," he said.
But many Democrats have spent more than a decade arguing that traditional trade agreements only serve to promote low-wage labor overseas and less protection for the environment. The issue immediately split Democrats once it became clear that congressional Republicans would try to move legislation giving Obama TPA.
Democrats like Sen. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.) and Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (Nev.) said they would not support the bill, which prompted Obama to say last month that Warren "is wrong on this." Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who is running for president as a Democrat, also opposed the bill.
These Democrats had the last say in Tuesday's procedural vote. The vote was held after Democrats warned again that they wanted the bill to include other trade proposals they do support, such as language that would help workers who lose their jobs because of trade, and language to boost enforcement of U.S. trade laws.
Earlier in the day, McConnell promised the Senate could hold amendment votes on these measures, but stopped short of combining all these bills into one right away, as Democrats wanted. It's possible that Republicans may rethink that idea in light of today's vote, but McConnell warned that in his party, it may not be so easy to package all the elements together in one bill.
Shortly after noon, Democrats came out of a meeting in which even pro-trade Democrats said they would oppose the deal. There was some talk of canceling the vote, but Republicans held it even though they knew it would fail.
Technically, Tuesday's vote was to end debate on a motion to proceed to legislation that would give Obama TPA. Sixty votes were needed, and with 54 Republicans in the Senate, that meant several Democrats would have been needed.
After the vote, McConnell said Democrats themselves had agreed that the customs and trade enforcement bill should come up separately, in particular because Democrats want to put language on the bill to help the U.S. fight foreign currency manipulation, which they see as a trade barrier. McConnell said even some Democrats have agreed that putting the currency language on the TPA bill would kill TPA, since the White House wouldn't support it.
"It would defeat the bill," McConnell said.
TPA lets Obama negotiate trade agreements, subject to certain specifications laid out in the bill, that cannot be amended by Congress. Instead, they must be considered as they are negotiated in an up-or-down vote.
The prohibition on amendments is aimed at avoiding a situation in which the executive branch negotiates an agreement that could be picked apart in Congress by various amendments. TPA, which used to be called fast-track authority, has been given to almost every modern president, and without it, U.S. trading partners have historically been reluctant to finalize any trade agreements with the United States.