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Unusual partnership means Obama trade agenda can progress

“This has been a long and rather twisted path to where we are today, but it’s a very, very important accomplishment for the country,” said Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell (center), surrounded by fellow Republicans after the vote.
“This has been a long and rather twisted path to where we are today, but it’s a very, very important accomplishment for the country,” said Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell (center), surrounded by fellow Republicans after the vote.Jim Lo Scalzo/EPA

WASHINGTON — An unusual alliance of President Obama and Senate Republicans resuscitated the president’s foreign trade agenda Tuesday, delivering a sharp defeat to congressional Democrats, including Senator Elizabeth Warren and the rest of the Massachusetts delegation, who vociferously opposed the plan.

The Senate cleared a key procedural hurdle that sets the table for votes this week to send a bill to Obama’s desk giving him the authority to complete negotiations on a sweeping Pacific Rim trade deal. The 60-to-37 vote brought a victory to Obama by the narrowest of margins, just meeting the 60 votes required to break a filibuster.

The vote follows embarrassing setbacks in the Senate in May and just two weeks ago in the House, when Democrats derailed the bill granting what’s known as fast-track authority. The opposition forced the president to align himself with Republican leaders in both chambers who engineered a series of parliamentary steps to maneuver around the Democratic barriers.

“This has been a long and rather twisted path to where we are today, but it’s a very, very important accomplishment for the country,” said Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, following Tuesday’s vote.

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At the White House, Obama spokesman Josh Earnest commended the Senate for its vote and said 11 participating Asian countries were watching Washington’s actions and looking for signs of progress toward an ultimate trade deal.

“What our partners are looking for is Congress to give the president the authority that he needs to complete this agreement,” Earnest told reporters.

Senator Bernie Sanders, a Vermont independent who is running for the Democratic presidential nomination, railed against the outcome. The trade agreement, he said, was supported by Wall Street, pharmaceutical companies, and corporations that outsource jobs.

“It’s a great day for the big moneyed interests,” Sanders said, “not a great day for working families.”

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The saga has revealed how Massachusetts senators and representatives — with Warren the most visible — are more tightly aligned with labor than they are with the executives running the high-tech, pharmaceutical, medical devices, and financial services companies that propel the state economy.

“Given the global nature of many of our industries in Massachusetts, it’s a little surprising,” said Graham Wilson, chairman of the political science department at Boston University. “You could cynically say one of the things they got out of this is a vote on the record, and they could take that to the bank in terms of labor unions and other powerful interests in the Democratic base, including environmental groups.”

Dan Payne, a Boston-based Democratic analyst, said their votes on trade show that the delegation is considering “not so much the economic impact on the state, but their sense of what’s fair. They’ve made the call that this is something that runs against their ideology.”

Warren in particular led a concerted public effort last month to defeat the fast-track bill, which resulted in a war of words with the president. This week, she penned an op-ed Tuesday in The Boston Globe once again outlining her case against providing the president with trade authority, but she otherwise stayed relatively quiet.

“On some issues, she has more juice than others,” Payne said. “When it comes to financial services, banking, Wall Street, she carries a great deal of weight. This isn’t technically that kind of issue.”

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In a written statement to the Globe following the vote, Warren said, “This battle is not over, and I will continue to fight against efforts to use fast-track to jam through trade deals that are big giveaways to multinational corporations.”

The trade agreement, years in the making, would bolster the legacy of a lame-duck president.

Proponents of the deal say it would also help ensure that rules for the global economy are written by the United States and its partners — not China, which is not part of the deal.

Democrats who oppose the deal deride the lack of transparency, saying they hesitate to hand Obama a blank check to negotiate the rest of the package, with no chance for amendments from Congress. They also are haunted by the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement, which critics say eliminated American jobs.

Now, with the Senate voting to end debate on Trade Promotion Authority, the chamber is on track to pass the bill Wednesday. The Senate on Thursday is expected to pass a companion bill to help workers displaced by the economic churn that often results from eliminating trade barriers and opening foreign trade.

The flurry of trade votes this week will complete a roller-coaster chain of events. The Senate passed a fast-track bill in May to give the Obama administration wide latitude in trade negotiations, coupled with the worker assistance bill to gain Democratic support.

But House Democrats scuttled that deal two weeks ago, forcing a more piecemeal approach that broke the legislation into two parts.

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Thirteen of 44 Democrats, including Senator Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, sided with Republicans on Tuesday.

Attention will now turn back to the thornier, less predictable House on Friday, when the chamber is expected to take up the worker assistance bill that Democrats had helped sink. It narrowly passed the separate fast-track bill last week.

Jim Manley, a Washington-based Democratic strategist and former spokesman for Senate minority leader Harry Reid, said Democrats miscalculated in using a procedural issue to oppose the president — voting against that bill to aid workers, a bill they actually support, to block the rest of the package.

“The strategy that House Democrats concocted a few weeks ago was never sustainable. They marginalized themselves and have no leverage,” he said. “Buried in that vote was potential for a phoenix to rise out of the ashes, and the president and [House Speaker John Boehner], along with Senator McConnell, managed to craft such a proposal.”

So what did Democrats gain from opposing the bills?

“Very little,” Manley said. “Other than managing to ingratiate themselves with labor” and avoid running the risk of having labor groups back a primary challenger against them.


Tracy Jan can be reached at tracy.jan@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @TracyJan.