"It was like an out-of-body experience," Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell says. He was talking about his congratulatory phone call from President Obama after Trade Promotion Authority (TPA) passed the Senate last week. "It was kind of fun." McConnell enjoyed hearing the president castigate Democrats who voted against TPA and oppose the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade treaty whose passage is now all but certain.
It was an important victory for Obama, undoubtedly the biggest accomplishment of his second term. He gets credit for sticking with a treaty that his party and its interest groups loathe. He lobbied Democrats in the House and Senate.
Presidents have traditionally played an influential role in struggles over trade. But Obama's role was small. He was expected to keep the minority of Democrats who support free trade from defectingnothing more. "I give the president credit," McConnell says. "He did reinforce those who intended to vote for it." Their votes were crucial.
In the Senate, 14 of 46 Democrats voted for TPA when it came up in early June. Last week, Obama lost 1 of the 14, Ben Cardin of Maryland, as the measure survived a Democratic filibuster. Cardin voted no only after TPA had gotten the 60 votes required to move ahead to the treaty itself later this summer. TPA bars amendments, preventing a trade agreement from being killed by hostile amendments.
For weeks, House Republicans were in constant contact with the White House. Republicans found that relations were positive and professional. "White House officials found it easier to work with Congress on trade now that Republicans control both houses," the New York Times reported.
But after watching Obama in action, Republicans concluded he lacks the skill set to pressure, much less persuade, Democrats to follow him. He bombed when he addressed the House Democratic caucus on June 12. Only 28 of 188 Democrats voted for TPA, often known as "fast track."
So the trade treaty was left to Republicans to rescue. Protectionists in the decades before World War II, Republicans are mostly free traders today. Democrats, led by organized labor and environmentalists, are strongly against treaties that eliminate barriers to trade. In 1993, more Republicans than Democrats voted for the North American Free Trade Agreement, allowing it to pass. Since then, most Democrats have become committed anti-free-traders.
To win enough Democratic votes, Republicans had agreed to attach to it TAA, "trade adjustment assistance" to aid workers out of jobs supposedly because of the treaty. That gave antitrade Democrats an opening. "It never occurred to us Democrats would vote against what they were for to defeat what they were against," McConnell says. Yet that's exactly what they did in the House, figuring TPA without worker assistance would die.
Despite this hitch, House speaker John Boehner and majority leader Kevin McCarthy decided to call a vote in the House. TPA was approved, TAA lost overwhelmingly. With no TAA attached, TPA couldn't be sent to the president, but at least it "locked in" a 219-vote majority for trade promotion authority, a Republican official says.
At this point, McConnell came up with a plan: Detach the aid package from TPA and add it to another bill, one sure to pass. Democrats could vote separately against "fast track" and for trade assistance. Assistance would be added to a "preferences" bill involving trade with Africa. The plan worked. Both passed. TPA was sent to Obama for his signature.
While left-wing Democrats were the biggest threat, a band of conservative Republicans turned against the treaty as well. They opposed it because they believed it gave Obama too much power and feared it contained secret provisions that could affect, among other things, immigration. They opposed TPAand its no-amendments rulebecause the 12-nation treaty could not be concluded without it. Blocking TPA would kill the treaty. The most obstreperous Republican was Senator Ted Cruz, who flipped to oppose both the treaty and TPA at the last minute.
Four other Republican senators joined Cruz. One was Rand Paul, McConnell's Kentucky colleague. Alabama senators Jeff Sessions and Richard Shelby voted no. So did Maine senator Susan Collins. "No senator from Maine has voted for a trade agreement since I've been here," McConnell says. He doesn't know why. McConnell was first elected in 1984.
McConnell takes the long view of TPA. He insists it will help Republicans, especially if a Republican is elected president in 2016. The authority to keep a treaty from being derailed by "poison pill" amendments will last for six years, covering the first term of the next president.
Without TPA, a Republican president would be unable to negotiate a trade treaty. Other countries would worry a treaty they agreed to could be altered by amendments they dislike. And had TPA failed to pass last week, it would be dead for the remainder of the Obama administration.
But couldn't a Republican president get Congress to enact TPA? Not a chance, McConnell says. Democrats have become so protectionist and so tied to labor and the environmental movement that TPA "wouldn't get a single Democratic vote" in Congress with a Republican president leading the charge. Without a Democrat in the White House, McConnell says, a Democratic filibuster in the Senate would have succeeded.
McConnell, a believer in free trade, had another reason for joining Obama on trade. Republicans "had an opportunity to do something for the country," he says. He echoes GOP senator Orrin Hatch of Utah. "While we hear a constant drumbeat decrying our trade deficits, the United States enjoys a $60 billion yearly manufacturing surplus with our 20 existing partners to free trade agreements," Hatch said in a speech.
Besides Obama's call, McConnell got another important one. It was from Caroline Kennedy, the U.S. ambassador to Japan. She told him the treaty issue was being followed closely in Japan, notably by pro-treaty prime minister Shinzo Abe. He wants America to be more involved in Asia to counteract China. McConnell does too.