WASHINGTON (AP) — Supporters of President Barack Obama’s trade agenda are scrambling to keep Senate foes from killing it Thursday before a full-blown debate even begins.
They need 60 votes in the 100-member Senate to keep a mostly Democratic-driven filibuster from blocking further action.
Obama wants “fast track” authority to negotiate trade proposals that Congress can approve or reject, but not change. If he prevails, Obama is expected to ask Congress to approve a free-trade accord with Japan, Canada, Mexico and eight other Pacific Rim countries.
The trade agenda is among Obama’s highest second-term priorities. Support was thought to be higher in the Senate than in the House, which is awaiting trade action, so a Senate defeat would be especially embarrassing.
The politics of trade have been strange from the start. Republican lawmakers generally support expanded trade deals, but many are loath to give Obama any new victories.
Most congressional Democrats and key liberal groups oppose new trade deals, saying they ship U.S. job overseas. But an uncertain number of House and Senate Democrats support Obama on trade, and the White House has lobbied heavily to expand that group.
Senate critics are attacking the fast-track bill from many sides. Some demand crackdowns on countries that make their exports more affordable by keeping the currency artificially low.
Others insist that Congress first deal with pending expirations of a domestic surveillance program and the Export-Import Bank.
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., spent hours on the Senate floor Wednesday criticizing the surveillance program.
More troubling to the White House was seeing several fast-track supporters announce they won’t help until Congress lays out a plan to reauthorize the Ex-Im Bank. The bank helps finance exports for large companies such as Boeing.
Democratic Sen. Maria Cantwell of Washington led the effort. But at least one Republican, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, joined her.
“Those who believe in trade are complete hypocrites if they want to defund the bank,” Graham told reporters, “because our domestic manufacturers are having to compete in developing nations with Ex-Im banks of China, France, Germany and throughout the world.”
Leading the Senate’s fast-track effort is Republican Orrin Hatch of Utah. Asked if the Ex-Im issue was making it tougher to round up 60 votes, he said: “Everything here makes it tougher. You just have to go on ahead.”
Hatch said he had no reliable nose-count for Thursday’s vote.