Having cleared the air after some inappropriate scolding from President Barack Obama, Senate Democrats now appear ready to advance the president’s trade agenda. It is a welcome decision.
On Tuesday all Senate Democrats but one, Tom Carper, D-Del., voted to block debate on legislation to expedite the pending Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade pact being negotiated by the Obama administration with Japan and 10 other partners. They were clearly miffed at the president’s criticism of their arguments in opposition to the plan as, among other demaning terms, “made up” and lacking “logic.”
Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, said Mr. Obama “has made this more personal than he needed to.”
But on Wednesday Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., agreed with Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., to create separate paths for the trade measure and legislation to discourage nations that keep their currencies artificially low relative to the dollar to gain a trade advantage. If brought to the floor as a separate bill and eventually enacted, the currency manipulation law could be vetoed by the president if necessary to preserve the TPP.
That clears the road for action on the so-called “fast-track” bill that was blocked by Tuesday’s vote, along with a companion bill to assist workers displaced by new trade patterns. Fast-track would limit the House and Senate to up-or-down votes on the trade agreement, preventing legislative changes that could kill the pact.
Mr. Obama has been on notice since January that Republicans do not have enough votes to assure passage of the fast-track authority without some Democratic support in the Senate and the House. Instead of seeking allies, however, he in effect insulted the intelligence of his opponents in his own party, singling out Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., in particular.
The president also insists on keeping the text of the TPP agreement secret until it is submitted to Congress, a decision that understandably angers opponents and leaves the general public in the dark. Sen. Warren, who opposes the TPP, has rightly called for its text to be made public.
While she no doubt wants details in order to pick the plan apart, the secrecy makes it hard for the president to arouse the public support necessary to persuade legislators of the merits of his trade policies, and leaves the field open to the committed opposition.
But the benefits of expanding international trade have been repeatedly demonstrated over the past 70 years, and it is likely that an informed public will strongly support a well-designed trade agreement if given the facts and time to digest them
President Obama now needs to direct his efforts to winning that support and enough Democratic votes in the Senate and House to assure the passage of the fast-track negotiating authority and the TPP itself.