WASHINGTON – The Senate rejected a liberal-led move Monday to increase aid for workers who lose their jobs to imports, pushing for passage by week's end of major trade legislation sought by President Barack Obama.
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The 45-41 vote was well short of the 60 needed, and reflected the unusual political forces at work on a bill to strengthen Obama's hand in negotiating global trade deals.
In remarks on the Senate floor, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said the trade legislation and two other bills — one to renew the Patriot Act, the other to keep federal highway funds flowing — would receive final votes by week's end or senators would have to delay a scheduled Memorial Day recess.
"I know we became used to hearing these types of statements in the past, but senators should know I'm quite serious," he said. He referred to frequent threats from Nevada's Democratic Sen. Harry Reid, the former majority leader, who frequently threatened to cancel vacations if bills weren't passed, but rarely if ever followed through.
The anti-terrorism Patriot Act and the highway measure are both controversial in their own right. But the trade measure has dominated the Senate's agenda for several days, with Republicans nearly unanimous in working to give a Democratic president new authority and union-backed Democrats opposed.
Sen. Sherrod Brown, an Ohio Democrat who opposes the legislation, led the effort to increase the amount of retraining assistance in the bill from $450 million a year to $575 million. He said Congress had agreed to the higher figure the last time it voted on the program, and added it was the level contained in Obama's budget. A large majority of workers who receive retraining are able to find and keep new jobs, he said, helping them "compete in the global economy."
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But Sen. Orrin Hatch, the Utah Republican who chairs the Senate Finance Committee, said increasing the amount of money could make it harder to pass the overall trade bill because it could increase Republican resistance.
All Democrats supported the move except Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon, and all Republicans except for Sens. Richard Burr of North Carolina and Susan Collins opposed it.
Separately, a proposal by Sen. Jim Lankford, R-Okla., requiring U.S. negotiators to take religious freedom laws into account in any country taking part in trade talks, cleared on a unanimous 92-0 vote. "Let's start exporting the values that we hold dear," he said.
The trade bill would permit the administration to negotiate trade deals that Congress could approve or reject, but not change. Previous presidents have wielded the same authority, and supporters of the bill say it is it is essential if other countries are to negotiate seriously with American officials. The White House wants the legislation as it tries to wrap up a proposed 12-nation deal among countries bordering the Pacific Ocean. A separate agreement with European Union nations is also a possibility.
While the bill appears to have the 60 votes needed to assure passage in the Senate, combined opposition from union-backed Democrats and Republicans distrustful of Obama make its path more perilous in the House.
In an evident bid to reassure rank-and-file Democrats, Republican congressional leaders and Wyden issued a statement during the day pledging to send Obama separate legislation to enforce trade deals by the end of June.
The president has campaigned energetically for the measure, and Secretary of State John Kerry arranged to dip into domestic politics Tuesday with a pro-trade speech at a Boeing Corp. factory in Washington state. As a senator from Massachusetts, he supported trade measures.