The Slatest

It Turns Out That Obama Won the Free-Trade Fight in Congress After All

Barack Obama with his best friends John Boehner and Mitch McConnell.

Larry Downing/Reuters

On June 12, House Democrats ignored President Obama’s wishes and rejected a bill involved in a proposed compromise related to the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) free-trade agreement. The defeat was described as “stunning” and “huge” by some major outlets—which seemed premature given that the House had only rejected one part of the free-trade plan, not the entire deal. Indeed, on Tuesday the Senate gave the president what he had wanted all along—“fast-track” authority to negotiate a final TPP bill that can’t be filibustered or amended when Congress votes on it.


Here’s the long and short of what happened:

  • The majority-Republican Senate had passed a bill giving the president fast-track authority and providing aid to workers who might lose their jobs because of TPP.
  • The majority-Republican House split that bill into two. They passed the fast-track part—with mostly Republican votes—but rejected the aid part. Many Republicans simply didn’t support the aid bill at all, and while many Democrats do want to give aid to workers, they decided not to vote for the bill because they didn’t ultimately trust the president to negotiate a good enough overall trade deal.
  • It seemed like this had killed both the fast-track and the aid elements because the Senate’s version had passed both of them together.
  • But then, Tuesday, Democratic senators were persuaded to peel the fast-track part off from the aid part and approve the fast-track separately.  

Of course, the process still isn’t over: Democratic senators only agreed to approve fast-track on its own because they were promised that a compromise on aid could ultimately be reached and a separate aid bill passed. But that hasn’t actually happened yet, and ultimately the entire TPP itself will need to be finalized and passed. Obama—and his strange-bedfellows allies in the Republican leadership—have won a battle but not the war.