President Obama takes it personally when Americans disagree with his free-trade fundamentalism. He keeps griping about the Democrats who usually support his agenda but are ardently opposed to his request for “fast track” authority to bypass congressional input and oversight on a sweeping Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal.
The president has from the start of the debate over fast track and the TPP had a practical problem: If most congressional Democrats align with labor, environmental, and human-rights activists rather than the White House—as they appear intent upon doing— they can block Obama’s trade agenda. In the Senate, just 40 votes are required to erect a procedural barrier to fast-track legislation. In the House, a reasonably united Democratic caucus could align with the significant number of Republicans who have traditionally opposed unrestricted free trade to thwart fast track and/or the TPP itself.
On Tuesday, the first major test came in the Senate, and the president lost. Sixty votes were required to open a debate on fast track, but only 52 senators voted to go forward. Forty-two Democrats and two independents who caucus with the Democrats, Vermont’s Bernie Sanders and Maine’s Angus King, voted “no.”
The trade fight is not finished; negotiations with Senate Republicans who favor Obama’s agenda could make the fast-track proposal more attractive to at least a few wavering Democrats. And if that happens, expect Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell to exercise the option he has retained to bring the issue up again.
Unless and until that happens, however, the president has taken a hard hit. It happened because a number of traditionally pro–free trade Democrats, who had been expected to vote with Obama and the Republicans, joined with the Senate’s growing caucus of fair-trade Democrats to block action.
This was what the president feared would happen.
In the run-up to Tuesday’s vote, the president made no secret of his frustration with his fellow Democrats.
“There have been a bunch of critics about trade deals generally and the Trans-Pacific Partnership,” he griped to the crowd that was assembled last week for his appearance at the corporate headquarters of Nike, a US-based firm that (with its contractors) now employs roughly 40 overseas workers for every one American. And, the president explained, a lot of the critics are Democrats who he has traditionally thought of as his partisan and ideological allies.