Senate Democrats dealt President Barack Obama a stinging setback on trade Tuesday, blocking efforts to begin a full-blown debate on a top priority of his second term.
The president's supporters said they will try again, possibly starting in the House. But they couldn't sugar-coat a solid rebuke from the president's own party, led by some who served with him in the Senate.
Only one Senate Democrat, Tom Carper of Delaware, voted for a GOP-crafted motion to start considering Obama's request for “fast track” trade authority. Fast track would let the president present trade agreements that Congress can ratify or reject, but not amend.
Proponents needed 60 votes to thwart a Democratic filibuster, but managed only 52 in the 100-member Senate.
Tuesday's vote highlighted the deep divide between Obama and the many congressional Democrats who say such trade deals hurt U.S. jobs. Leading the fight against fast track are labor unions and liberal groups, which are crucial to many Democrats' elections.
Most Republican lawmakers support free-trade agreements. They were in the strange position Tuesday of losing a vote but seeing the Democratic president take the blame.
“It is the president's party,” said GOP Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah. “It's amazing to me that they would do this to the president on a bill of this magnitude.”
Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., said Democrats were “throwing their own president under the bus.” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., called the results “pretty shocking,” but he said the “door remains open” for trade legislation.
Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida took a darker view, however. “Maybe what McConnell really wants to do is embarrass the president,” he said, referring to McConnell's refusal to grant Democrats' demands about assembling the legislative trade package.
Several Democrats said Obama erred last weekend by pointedly criticizing a leading Democratic foe on trade, Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, in an interview with Yahoo News. He suggested Warren was poorly informed and politically motivated.
Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio, another strong opponent on trade, told reporters that Obama “was disrespectful to her by the way he did that,” and “made this more personal than he needed to.” Brown said he suspects Obama regrets the remarks.
The administration had planned to invite Senate Democrats to the White House on Monday to discuss trade, but it canceled the event, citing conflicts with a Senate vote on another matter.
Shortly before the Senate roll call began, White House spokesman Josh Earnest said some Democrats would vote against Tuesday's procedural motion but ultimately support fast track for the president
Numerous Senate Democrats said they would back fast track only if Republican leaders cleared a path for three other trade measures.
One, to renew the African Growth and Opportunity Act, is uncontroversial.
The second calls for Trade Adjustment Assistance, which provides federal aid to workers displaced by trade agreements. Republicans don't like it, but reluctantly acknowledge it's the price for winning even modest Democratic support.
The third bill, involving Customs enforcement, is the stickiest. It includes a measure to take actions against countries that keep their currency artificially low, which makes their exports more attractive. The Obama administration opposes “currency manipulation” measures, saying they could invite international challenges to the Federal Reserve's policies meant to boost the U.S. economy.
McConnell said that only two of the bills — fast track and Trade Adjustment Assistance — would be the subject of initial votes, but senators would have ample chances to address the other two bills during the amendment process.
Democratic senators huddled at midday and declared McConnell's package unacceptable. Democrats rejected GOP claims that they broke an earlier agreement on how the four bills would be handled.
The president's trade foes were exultant.
“The Fast Track train went off the rails today,” said Lori Wallach of Public Citizen's Global Trade Watch. Obama's bid to build momentum in the Senate backfired, she said, and House Democrats remain convinced that “the trade package would do a lot more harm than good.”
Obama says the global economy makes it essential for more U.S. goods and services to reach other countries, home to 95 percent of the world's inhabitants. He says old criticisms of the 1995 North America Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA, are outdated.
The administration says it needs fast track approval to wrap up long-running negotiations with Japan and 10 other Pacific-rim countries, parties to the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Trade experts say countries won't put their best offers forward if they think Congress will sidetrack the president's agreements.
Senators and aides said the multi-faceted customs bill is the most problematic item in trying to find a new path forward. Some say the currency manipulation provision could deeply undermine Obama's trade goals, while others call it mostly harmless.