WASHINGTON -- Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) may try again this week to advance President Barack Obama's ambitious trade agenda, his spokesman told The Huffington Post.
All it will take is a little cooperation, spearheaded by Sens. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), the leaders of their parties on the Senate Finance Committee who crafted the original deal to grant Obama the fast-track authority he needs to get his enormous trade deals through a reluctant Congress.
“This doesn’t have to be the end of the story," McConnell said on the Senate floor, shortly after Democrats unexpectedly united to block a vote to proceed to the bill that would give Obama that fast-track power, or Trade Promotion Authority.
Such authority allows a president to craft trade agreements, then expedite their passage in Congress with simple majority votes without amendments or filibusters in the Senate.
"Trade has traditionally been a bipartisan issue that cut across the partisan divide," McConnell said. In fact, a half-dozen Democrats, including Wyden, voted for the TPA measure in committee last month, even though they helped filibuster it Tuesday.
"I suspect we have colleagues on the other side who aren’t that comfortable filibustering economic benefits for their constituents -- or a president who leads their party," McConnell said. “I suspect some may be parking their vote, rather than actually buying the outlandish rhetoric we’ve heard from the left. That’s my hope."
But Democrats decided that the concerns of the left are far from outlandish. And in stalling the bill, Wyden and other pro-fast-track Democrats argued that they could not vote to proceed if three other measures that the committee passed along with TPA don't get a floor vote.
The key measure is a customs and enforcement bill that Democrats and Republicans amended extensively during the trade markup last month. Perhaps the most contentious amendment is a bipartisan measure that would crack down on countries that manipulate their currencies to keep their products artificially cheaper than U.S. goods, especially China.
The administration calls that provision a deal-killer for several of the trading partners that would be included in the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership. But many Democrats see it as a deal-killer for Obama's trade bills if currency manipulation legislation is not passed, because they won't vote for TPA without it.
It leaves a very fine line for Obama and McConnell to walk, but Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), a longtime crusader for currency legislation, suggested it was possible. "My goal is not to use currency to kill the TPA bill, and not to kill the TPA bill, it’s to get currency passed," Schumer told reporters. "And that’s why we offered it to the customs bill."
McConnell spokesman Don Stewart did not pledge that a currency measure would be passed, but he did say it was a matter that could be negotiated. "I’m sure the White House would like to find a way forward," he said.
But to move at all, Stewart said, Hatch and Wyden will have to go back to work on the customs bill that contains the currency provision, as well as numerous other provisions that senators had demanded votes on.
"That was a dumping bill. Everyone agreed to that," Stewart said. "Schumer put his there."
In order to get a currency vote that could move the whole process forward, Schumer's provision would have to come out, and get a vote on its own -- a possibility that Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) seemed willing to accept.
"Currency still needs to get a vote, but it can be separate," Reid spokesman Adam Jentleson said. "McConnell shouldn't have any problem with that."
McConnell seemed to leave the matter squarely with Wyden and Hatch.
“We’ll have an open and fair amendment process," McConnell promised. “And for my part, I can restate my commitment to processing TPA and [Trade Adjustment Assistance to help displaced workers], and other policies Chairman Hatch and Sen. Wyden can agree to," McConnell said.
“The Senate has historically been the place where our country debates and considers big issues," he continued. "This is an issue worthy of our consideration. It doesn’t mean we can predetermine outcomes. It doesn’t mean we can even guarantee the successful passage of legislation once we proceed to debate it. But blocking the Senate from even debating such an important issue is not the answer."
While Stewart declined to offer a solid prediction about when the fast-track legislation would return, beyond saying it could be this week, he said he expects it eventually will pass.
Michael McAuliff covers Congress and politics for The Huffington Post. Talk to him on Facebook.