From the Senate to the Cities, Dems in Disarray on Trade
Policy + Politics

From the Senate to the Cities, Dems in Disarray on Trade

As Senate Democrats on Tuesday filibustered a key initiative of a Democratic president over disagreements on trade policy, Democratic mayors of large U.S. cities demonstrated that the divisions within the party extend far beyond Washington, DC, into large and small cities across the country. 

In a 2:30 p.m. vote in the Senate on Tuesday, Senate Democrats, including several who support President Obama’s trade proposals, refused to begin debate on the question of whether to grant him the ability to bring trade deals to the Congress for an up-or-down vote, without possibility of amendments. Called Trade Promotion Authority, it would apply most immediately to the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a massive 12-country trade deal currently being negotiated. 

Related: Obama v. Warren: Inside Their Fast-Track Feud 

The debate produced an unlikely scene, in which Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT), the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee and a staunch foe of the White House on many issues, took to the floor to plead with Democrats to stand with the president. 

The procedural vote required 60 senators to vote in the affirmative, but the final 52-45 tally fell short. 

“What we just saw here is pretty shocking,” said Senate majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) after the vote. 

“I don’t routinely quote President Obama, but today is no ordinary day,” McConnell said. He noted that Obama has accused opponents of trade deals in his own party of “making stuff up” and has said that their arguments don’t “stand the test of fact and scrutiny.” 

Related: Obama’s Key Foreign Policies Live or Die in GOP Hands 

“It was hard to argue with him,” McConnell said. 

The reasoning behind the Democrats’ unexpected move was complex. TPA is not the only trade issue awaiting a vote in the Senate. Other proposals include Trade Adjustment Assistance, which allows for wage support and training for workers whose jobs are shipped overseas, a bill requiring the Commerce Department to act against countries that manipulate their currencies to gain an unfair advantage in trade, and a fourth bill that would renew the African Growth and Opportunity Act, which allows some preferential treatment for goods imported from Africa. 

Republicans particularly dislike the TAA bill, but agreed to allow it to move in tandem with the TPA bill, alleviating Democrats’ fears that it would be killed by the Republican majority. However, the currency manipulation proposal and the AGOA are currently part of the package Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) is planning to bring to the floor. 

Sensing an opportunity to get all four of the bills to pass together, even Democrats who support granting the president TPA declined to vote to begin debate. 

Related: Obama Dials Back the Anger on Fast Track 

As Democrats on Capitol Hill were sending mixed messages about trade deals, others in their parties who run U.S. cities were doing the same thing. 

On Tuesday morning, the U.S. Conference of Mayors released a letter calling on Congress to pass the TPA proposal. 

“TPA is a critical step to ensuring that the United States and its metro economies remain leaders in the global market place,” the mayors write in the letter. “We believe that inclusion of enforceable labor and environmental standards, transparency, uniform tariffs, protection of intellectual property rights, and other standards and objectives will result in increased global trade that promotes fairness throughout the global trading system, and therefore increase U.S. competitiveness.” 

Among the signatories were prominent voices in the Democratic Party, including Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu, Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson, and Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter. 

Related: An Angry Obama Blasts Democrats on Trade Deal 

Hours later, New York Mayor Bill De Blasio, perhaps the most high-profile Democratic mayor in the country, was scheduled to appear on Capitol Hill at a press conference sponsored by the labor union Communications Workers of America. 

CWA president Larry Cohen was scheduled to speak on why the TPP is “detrimental to working families” and why Congress should reject TPA. De Blasio’s presence at the event would underscore his already-vocal opposition to the trade deal. 

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