The Senate narrowly invoked cloture on fast-track trade legislation Tuesday morning, setting up a final vote Wednesday that will surely send the bill to President Obama’s desk for his signature.
In so doing, Congress will surrender remarkable authority to Obama and his successors. For the next six years, Congress will be unable to amend any trade deal signed by the president, and only 50 votes will be required for Senate passage—a reduced burden that hasn’t been granted to minimum-wage hikes, equal-pay legislation, gun control, campaign-finance reform, nor any other non-budgetary legislation of the Obama era.
In exchange, these future administrations will promise to be guided by negotiating objectives in the fast-track legislation on human rights, labor standards, and the environment, though many experts and congressional Democrats have decried the objectives as meaningless—in some cases they are satisfied if the president self-certifies that unspecified “progress” was made towards the negotiating goal.
The Senate wasn’t supposed to have to vote again; it passed fast-track legislation weeks ago and sent it to the House. But House liberals rebelled and temporarily killed the House package by voting down a program that provides job training to workers screwed over by trade deals. This program was a Democratic priority, but one they strategically killed in order to hopefully stop the entire fast-track passage.
But House Speaker John Boehner held another vote last week and sent fast track back to the Senate without the trade-assistance program, and so the Senate had to vote again on this bill.
There was substantial doubt that Senate Democrats would back fast track without trade assistance for workers, but they did—resting on assurances from congressional Republicans that they will pass the assistance program soon.
The final vote was 60-37, achieving cloture by the thinnest possible margin. (Three senators were absent; Tennessee Republican Bob Corker was delayed getting to Washington, but said he would have voted for fast track; Senators Robert Menendez and Mike Lee both voted “no” last time.)
After the vote, Senator Sherrod Brown took the Senate floor and declared, “This is a day of celebration in the corporate suites of this country, to be sure.”
Senator and presidential candidate Bernie Sanders added that “this trade agreement was supported by virtually every major corporation in this country, the vast majority of whom have outsourced millions of jobs to low-wage countries all over the world.”