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Plenty to Navigate to Get ‘Fast Track’ Through Senate (Updated) (Video)

(Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
McConnell has to navigate amendments to get TPA passed this week. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Updated 6:21 p.m. | The pathway to Senate passage of legislation to restore “fast-track” authority for trade authority is full of obstacles, and Majority Leader Mitch McConnell wants to avoid any more.

A proposal from Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., to attach language related to reauthorization of the Export-Import Bank to the trade package pending on the floor generated discussion at Tuesday’s Republican conference lunch, and McConnell emerged saying the trade bill wasn’t the right venue for a debate over the lending agency’s future.

“It shouldn’t be on TPA because that would be another undue burden to TPA, which has been a challenging enough exercise, as you know, already,” the Kentucky Republican said.

“I am not a supporter of Ex-Im, but what I’ve said was that I think they’re entitled to their vote,” McConnell said. “We’ll be working with the supporters of the Ex-Im Bank to make sure they have an opportunity to see where the votes are in the Senate.”

Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., who opposes fast track, nonetheless suggested adding Ex-Im and said Republicans don’t support it because of opposition from the Koch brothers.

“If it became part of the trade bill, it would be signed into law,” Reid said. “The president loves the bank. He said so publicly. We’ve been trying to get this done. But now the Republicans have said ‘no thanks’ because their guiding light, the Koch brothers, don’t like it because it’s a government program.”

Advocates for Trade Promotion Authority, both on Capitol Hill and within the Obama administration are working to avoid amendments that they view as poison pills.

Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., joined with Rob Portman, R-Ohio, in leading one such amendment designed to require that any future trade agreements given the ability to have expedited consideration in Congress include enforceable language regarding currency manipulation.

“Instead of fast-tracking trade, we need to fast-track the middle class by putting policies in place that will allow our businesses and workers to compete and win on a level playing field. Our trade agreements need to have strong, enforceable currency manipulation language,” Stabenow said in a statement.

News of a veto threat over such currency language spread quickly after the Treasury Department circulated a letter from Secretary Jacob J. Lew to Finance Chairman Orrin G. Hatch, R-Utah.

“[T]here are currency proposals that we believe would be harmful to TPA, our workers, and our economy,” Lew wrote. “For example, enacting a TPA currency discipline that requires an enforceable negotiating objective would likely derail our efforts to complete the TPP and cause us to lose ground on holding countries accountable on currency.”

McConnell highlighted that veto threat Tuesday.

“Most of my members are opposed to it,” McConnell said of the amendment from Portman and Stabenow. “We want to see a completed Trade Promotion Authority bill that can become [law]. We’d like to send a bill to the House that’s in a form they can take up and deal with, and so we’ll be working hard to keep any amendments off the bill that would defeat the bill, tank the bill, at some place in the process.”

While the currency amendment vote is expected by both sides to be tight, a bigger question mark as of Tuesday might be how to address a provision in the trade bill that won bipartisan support at the Finance Committee. Since the amendment from Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., is already in the bill, it would take affirmative legislative action to get rid of it.

The Menendez language would bar the use of the fast-track procedures for trade agreements with countries listed at Tier Three on the State Department’s annual Trafficking in Persons report. In the context of the negotiations over the proposed Trans Pacific Partnership agreement, that’s an issue with Malaysia.

“I cannot understand for the life of me when previous comments have been made that this amendment that got … 16 votes in the Finance Committee is somehow a poison pill,” Menendez told reporters. “I don’t accept that, and I think any attempt to strip this amendment would be a moral failure of the Senate, and a terrible precedent for the Senate Finance Committee, reversing a bipartisan majority vote in the committee.”

There’s also an argument to be made that the negotiated labor protections in the Trans-Pacific Partnership could improve conditions in Malaysia. But, speaking on a call with Menendez, Human Rights Watch’s Asia Advocacy Director said that rather than the Menendez amendment being a poison pill, “Malaysia is the poison pill, if there is a poison pill.”

Work was going on behind the scenes to address concerns about slavery and human trafficking within the trade legislation in a way that would meet the concerns of a variety of stakeholders, and an administration official told CQ Roll Call that the executive branch would engage on the issue as the process moves forward.

“There are a number of steps to go before this bill becomes law, and the Administration is committed to working with members each step of the way to ensure that the final bill is consistent with the President’s commitment to only sign trade agreements that put in place historic new protections for human rights, environmental, and labor standards and level the playing field for our workers,” the administration official said in a statement.

There was increasing discussion that debate on the trade bill could be limited as early as Thursday, with a limited number of additional amendments, to the dismay of some members, like Sen. John McCain.

The Arizona Republican gave an impassioned floor speech Tuesday advocating for an amendment against one of the federal programs he most despises: the Agriculture Department’s catfish inspection program. McCain and like-minded senators consider it a redundant operation.

“All I want is a vote. All I’m asking for is a vote, up or down vote, on whether we should continue to squander millions of taxpayer dollars. On a program that it is not only duplicative but endangers the entire Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement,” McCain said. “If we don’t allow this amendment I have to say we are really, really showing a degree of contempt and arrogance for the taxpayers of America.”

And later Tuesday, Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., filed an amendment to the trade bill that could further complicate the plans of Hatch and McConnell if he seeks a vote.

Paul has filed his Federal Reserve transparency measure, which is always one of the more contentious items on Capitol Hill. The amendment would direct the Government Accountability Office to conduct a full audit of the Fed within a year of enactment. The amendment also would direct the comptroller general to audit home loan files from 2009 and 2010 involved in enforcement actions.

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