Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said Tuesday that he would give Senate Democrats a chance to amend legislation giving President Barack Obama the authority to negotiate trade deals, in an effort to convince Democrats to support the bill in a key procedural vote later today.
But amendment votes don't guarantee that those Democratic priorities will make it onto the final bill, which means it's still unclear whether there are enough Democrats to advance the legislation.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said Tuesday that he would give Democrats a chance to amend a key trade bill up today, but didn't go as far as some Democrats want. AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite
Most presidents have been given trade promotion authority — formerly known as fast-track authority — in order to ensure that they can negotiate trade agreements that get a clean vote in Congress. Without fast-track authority, these deals could be picked apart in Congress through various amendments, and that fact alone would likely prevent the U.S. from finalizing any deal with other nations.
Obama has said he wants fast-track authority to negotiate the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade deal that's still being negotiated and would include several Asian nations.
But Democrats have been wary of trade for years, and fear it leads to lower wages, reduced environmental protection and even U.S. job losses. For that reason, Democrats have also pressed for an extension of trade adjustment assistance, or TAA, which is a program aimed at helping workers who lose their jobs because of trade.
McConnell said Tuesday that he expects fast track and TAA to be combined into a single bill.
"I expect that at the end of this process, after the Senate works its will, that TAA, trade adjustment assistance, will be part of a package that the Senate sends to the House," he said.
McConnell also seemed to promise that senators would be able to vote on whether to add other trade provisions. These could include amendments comprised of bills that have been passed by the Senate Finance Committee to ensure U.S. market access for African countries, and increased enforcement of trade laws.
"I know we've heard some concern that these bills might get left behind. I don't think that was anybody's intent," McConnell said. "I expect to have a robust amendment process that will allow trade-related amendments to be offered and considered, including on the subject matters that the committee dealt with."
Still, it's unclear whether McConnell's promise of amendment votes will be enough. Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and other Democrats have demanded that all of these bills be presented together, and said despite McConnell's remarks today, it's still not clear if each of these elements would make it into the final bill.
"As I stand here today, Senate Democrats still don't know for sure the procedure of the Republican leader," Reid said.
The first step in the process is a 2:30 pm vote to end debate on the motion to proceed to the fast-track legislation. Sixty votes will be needed here, which means several Democrats will need to vote in favor of the measure.
Failure to get the needed 60 votes would likely be blamed on Senate Democrats, many of which are expected to vote against their own president. However, some Republicans oppose the measure as well. Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), for example, has been warning for weeks that it's not clear at all what's in the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
Sessions has demanded that Obama outline exactly how much that agreement would increase or reduce the trade deficit, and how it would affect U.S. jobs and wages.