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Senators Deny Obama Authority To Expedite Pacific Trade Deal


The president's trade agenda stumbled in the Senate today. Members of his own party blocked a bill that would give the White House fast-track authority to enter a trade agreement with countries on the Pacific Rim. That agreement is the Trans Pacific Partnership. The Senate needed 60 votes to begin debating the bill today, but in the end, there were only 52 in favor. With us now to talk about where this is going is NPR's congressional correspondent Ailsa Chang, and, Ailsa, explain what happened today. This is a bill that got out of committee with bipartisan support. Now nearly every single Democrat is blocking it.

AILSA CHANG, BYLINE: That's right because basically Democrats said they'd only let this fast-track bill through if they could combine it with other measures. That demand emerged after the bill came out of committee and Republicans refused to consider it. The top Republican who helped craft the fast-track bill says he feels betrayed now by Democrats. Orrin Hatch of Utah blames them for blocking something their own president wanted.

SENATOR ORRIN HATCH: If they want to play these games at the last minute - at the last minute - when we've had agreements to do it the right way, you know, they'll have to live with what they did.

BLOCK: Well, what are those measures that the Democrats want to add onto this bill?

CHANG: Well, it's a package of - there are four bills total. The first bill is this fast-track measure. That's the one that would let Congress take up or down votes on trade deals without being able to amend those deals. It frees up the president to negotiate. As for the other three measures, there's a proposal that would assist any workers who lose jobs under trade agreements. Republicans have allowed to let that one in, but not the other two. And the one they really object to is a proposal that Democrats say would fight currency manipulation. That is a proposal the White House really does not like.

BLOCK: And still, Democrats are pushing that measure, bucking the White House on that.

CHANG: That's right, especially Chuck Schumer of New York, the guy who's in line to be the next Democratic leader in the Senate. And what his currency manipulation provision would do is crack down on countries that keep the value of their currencies artificially low. Countries that do that can keep their exports very cheap and make U.S. exports more expensive. And the reason the White House doesn't like this provision is because it could kill the trade negotiations out right because at least two Asian countries strongly oppose the measure.

BLOCK: So now, Ailsa, the White House is in a bind. How do they respond? Where do they go from here?

CHANG: Well, so far their response today has been kind of subdued. Earlier, the White House press secretary called all of this merely a procedural snafu, but the president really is in a difficult spot now. He may have to watch some of these trade provisions he doesn't like get through the Senate, even if they could jeopardize the negotiations. And remember, the point of the fast-track bill in the first place was to make these negotiations easier.

BLOCK: Yeah. Well, what have Republicans offered as a way out of this quagmire that they find themselves in?

CHANG: Well, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has said that he'd let the Democrats introduce these other measures as amendments later once the Senate gets on the fast-track bill. But Democrats don't think that's good enough because they say it's a lot harder to get these measures passed as amendments rather than as one whole package that can't be severed from the main fast-track bill. You know, in many ways, what's going on is a personal power struggle between Harry Reid, the minority leader, and McConnell. McConnell says he is not letting the minority run the Senate.


SENATOR MITCH MCCONNELL: What they basically want us to do I guess get in a room and craft a final bill then get on it, shut everybody else out and tell the Senate take it or leave it. That's not the way we're going to operate.

BLOCK: Well, then how should they operate if they're going to get this trade deal done?

CHANG: Well, McConnell says the door is still open for the two sides to come up with a solution. He's said that before, that trade is one of the things he most wants to see the Senate get done. The White House said right after the midterms that trade was part of that small sliver of things that they could actually do with a Republican Congress, but so far, none of that has happened.

BLOCK: OK, NPR's Ailsa Chang at the Capitol. Ailsa, thanks so much.

CHANG: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.
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