Senate Democrats just snubbed Obama and blocked his Pacific trade bill

Legislation giving U.S. President Barack Obama authority to speed trade deals through Congress failed a crucial procedural test on Tuesday, delaying a measure that may be key to President Barack Obama’s diplomatic pivot to Asia.

In a setback to the White House trade agenda, the Senate voted 52-45 – eight votes short of the necessary 60 – to clear the way for debate on the legislation, which would allow a quick decision on granting the president so-called fast track authority to move trade deals quickly through Congress.

The vote marked a big victory for Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid, an outspoken opponent of fast-track.

The failure to garner the necessary votes came after key pro-trade Democrats, including Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon, announced they would vote no on the procedural vote because the measure lacked some trade protections.

“This is an issue worthy of our consideration and yet today we have voted to not even consider it,” said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican.

Only one Democrat, Senator Tom Carper of Delaware, backed the measure, despite a White House campaign blitz to win Democratic support.

Senate Republicans stuck together in voting to let the bill pass its first test. However, McConnell at the last minute switched his vote to “no” in a procedural move that lets him bring the bill to a vote again in the future.

The legislation would give lawmakers the right to set negotiating objectives but restrict them to a yes-or-no vote on trade deals such as the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a potential legacy-defining achievement for Obama.

Failure sends a worrying signal about the level of support for fast track, which unions, environmental and consumer groups strongly oppose, along with some conservatives.

It may also reflect congressional manoeuvring tactics after Reid demanded that the Senate first consider the imminent expiration of federal transportation construction projects and a domestic surveillance program.

Republicans could now work on the transportation and surveillance bills and then try again on trade at some time in the future.

The TPP would create a free trade zone covering 40 per cent of the world economy – making it the biggest trade deal since the North American Free Trade Agreement liberalized trade between the United States, Canada and Mexico.

More than two decades later, that pact is blamed by many on the left for factory closures and job losses and has soured sentiment toward the TPP.

Although the administration pointed to research saying export-related jobs pay up to 18 per cent more than other jobs, other studies showed that increased competition from imports has cut wages and caused job losses in U.S. manufacturing.

Negotiations on the TPP are nearly complete, but trading partners have said they want to see fast-track legislation enacted before finalising the pact, which will stretch from Japan to Chile.

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This article originally appeared at Reuters. Copyright 2015. Follow Reuters on Twitter.

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