WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama and Senator Mitch McConnell have seldom worked together and it showed on Tuesday, when the political odd couple failed to persuade the U.S. Senate to move forward with a Pacific Rim trade treaty they both favor.
By hitting the brakes, at least for now, on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) at the center of Obama’s legacy-defining foreign policy pivot to Asia, Senate Democrats put the president and Senate Republican Leader McConnell on notice.
Despite losing control of the Senate in November’s elections, Democrats showed they can and will block legislation that they dislike as effectively as Republicans did for years, ending a brief, recent run of bipartisan achievements.
“The simple fact is that to pass the Senate, bills must have strong Democratic support,” Democratic Leader Harry Reid said in a statement after the vote that handed his rival McConnell and the Democratic president a stunning setback.
The Senate, by a vote of 52-45 - short of the 60 votes needed - blocked debate on a bill giving Obama “fast-track” authority to complete the TPP.
The defeat underscored the president’s poor record as a Capitol Hill persuader and added to an already embarrassing week in which key Arab leaders withdrew from Obama’s Gulf Cooperation Council summit.
In the end, Obama “is going to get what he wants. But Senate Republicans are going to have to agree to the demands that Democrats are making,” said Jim Manley, a Democratic strategist and former senior aide to Reid.
The mistakes along the way that culminated in the Senate vote were many, said lawmakers, aides and observers.
For one, McConnell appeared to have miscalculated by ignoring Democratic demands for moving other trade measures, including one on currency manipulation, to the floor along with the Trade Promotion Authority (TPA) bill. This meant that even pro-trade Democrats voted no on Tuesday.
Since the Republicans took control of the Senate this year, McConnell has strived for a “regular order” approach. Even as the TPA was headed for defeat, he said he would not succumb and accused Democrats of wanting to make a back-room deal.
“What they basically want us to do, I guess, is to get in a room and craft a final bill, then get on it, shut everybody else out and tell the Senate, take it or leave it. That’s not the way we’re going to operate,” McConnell told reporters.
But most major legislation, such as the Iran nuclear deal, which overwhelmingly passed the Senate last week, requires some level of backroom deal-making to pass.
As for Obama, he may have hurt his chances with Democrats by minimizing concerns about trade’s impact on labor, the environment and regulations, and his explicit criticism of the anti-trade stance of leading liberal Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren.
“The president was disrespectful to her,” Democratic Senator Sherrod Brown told reporters. “When he said that a number of us, not just Senator Warren, don’t know what we’re talking about ... he shouldn’t have.” Brown opposes the fast-track bill.
Nevertheless, the White House was still hopeful.
“It is not unprecedented, to say the least, for the United States Senate to encounter procedural snafus,” spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters at a briefing.
Obama and top White House officials have worked hard to build support among pro-trade Democrats for the measure. Obama held a meeting with an undisclosed number of Democratic senators after the Senate vote on Tuesday to discuss the “path forward” for the bill, an administration official said.
It’s not unusual for presidents nearing the end of their terms to face legislative setbacks, said Daniel Franklin, a political scientist at Georgia State University who has studied “lame duck” presidents.
“About the only tactic they can use is to build a majority coalition by agreeing with the majority party,” Franklin said, predicting Obama would find ways to convince enough Democrats to support an agenda viewed as an important part of his legacy.
Additional reporting by David Lawder and Richard Cowan; Writing by Kevin Drawbaugh; Editing by Steve Orlofsky