Supporters of President Barack Obama’s trade agenda hope to fend off hostile Senate amendments Friday and send a major trade bill to the House, where another fierce debate awaits.
Senators also plan to address the government’s soon-to-expire authority to collect bulk data on Americans’ phone records. Many senators will press leaders and colleagues to wrap things up in time to start the weeklong Memorial Day recess on Saturday.
Pro-trade senators survived a Democratic-led effort Thursday to block Obama’s agenda, with two votes to spare. Now they hope several hours of votes on amendments will clear the way for Senate endorsement of “fast track” negotiating authority for Obama.
The authority would allow Obama, like earlier presidents, to propose trade agreements that Congress could reject or ratify, but not change. He says it’s crucial to advancing a long-negotiated trade pact with 11 other Pacific Rim nations. Other accords could follow.
Obama’s allies secured crucial Democratic support on trade Thursday by agreeing to allow a Senate vote next month on reauthorizing the Export-Import Bank. The bank guarantees loans for U.S. exports, and many House conservatives want to end it.
Obama called Thursday’s Senate action “a big step forward.” He predicted new trade deals will “open up access to markets that too often are closed.” The president had telephoned wavering senators late Wednesday night.
Labor unions and key liberal groups oppose free-trade deals, saying they send U.S. jobs to nations with low wages, lax environmental laws and poor safety standards. The political dynamics force Obama to rely heavily on Republicans, who oppose him on most other issues.
The trade measure is one of three major bills facing senators as they anticipate the scheduled weeklong break.
Legislation to renew the Patriot Act is on the calendar, as is a bill to renew authority to commit federal funds for highway and bridge construction. Both face a June 1 deadline.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., is intent on keeping the anti-terrorism Patriot Act from lapsing while Republicans control the House and Senate.
The House has passed Obama-backed legislation that would significantly change the government’s bulk collection of records of who calls who in America. A Senate vote on that measure is expected once the trade bill is completed. But it is unclear if there are 60 votes, in the 100-member Senate, that are needed to send it to Obama for his signature.
A short-term extension of the current domestic surveillance program is also possible.
The House has also cleared a two-month extension of highway funding. The Senate appears likely to accept it, and work on a longer-term bill this summer.
As for the trade bill, House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, supports the business-backed legislation, and Republicans hold 245 of the House’s 435 seats. But dozens of rank-and-file Republicans oppose the trade measure either on ideological grounds or because they don’t want to enhance Obama’s power on a high-profile issue.
Democratic support is weak, given the opposition of organized labor. But Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California, the Democrats’ House leader, has yet to announce her position and has said she hopes somehow to facilitate a trade bill’s passage.
One proposed Senate amendment for Friday would seek sanctions against countries that keep their currency artificially low. Such below-market values make a country’s exports more affordable to foreigners.
Another amendment would keep inspections of imported catfish in the Food and Drug Administration, rather than transferring them to the Department of Agriculture. But opponents will ask the Senate parliamentarian to quash the amendment by ruling it non-germane to the trade bill. The Agriculture Department’s inspection role could make it harder to import catfish from Vietnam and other countries.
Associated Press writer David Espo contributed to this report.
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