The House is currently dozens of votes short of being able to pass legislation that would allow President Barack Obama to send trade deals to Congress for fast approval, according to senior lawmakers and aides in both parties, imperiling a top White House priority for the president’s final years in office.
[Reposted from Politico | Adam Behsudi | April 29, 2015]
House Democrats, meanwhile, say just 12 to 20 of their lawmakers support Obama’s request. That figure, if it holds, would amount to a stinging rebuke of a president by his own party.
“It’s very low on the Democratic side,” Rep. Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.) said, commenting on the support. House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said the 12-to-20 figure is “probably pretty accurate” but added the White House is keeping the count. The Senate is generally expected to pass the measure.
The fast-track legislation would allow Obama to submit trade agreements to Congress for straight up-or-down votes without amendments. Critics consider the procedure undemocratic, but proponents say other countries won’t make their best offers in trade talks with the United States if they know Congress could change the terms of the pact.
Obama needs the bill to complete the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership with Japan and 10 other countries. The pact would cover approximately 40 percent of world economic output, making it the biggest free trade agreement to date. Business groups are pushing hard for the trade bill and the Asia-Pacific agreement, but labor and many activist groups strongly oppose both.
House Democrats are urging the White House to step its game up in shoring up support — and the administration appears to be kicking into high gear. Cabinet secretaries are starting to become engaged in lobbying Democrats. More than 30 pro-business lawmakers who are members of the moderate New Democrat Coalition will meet with Obama on Thursday at the White House. The Obama administration is also targeting Congressional Black Caucus members in hopes they will back his push.
Obama met last week with Clyburn, CBC Chairman G.K. Butterfield of North Carolina, and Reps. Eddie Bernice Johnson of Texas and Greg Meeks of New York about the trade measure. Clyburn said he’s still undecided.
“I am in constant consultation with the leadership, but I am not there yet,” Clyburn said. Butterfield said he is leaning no because he was “still tarnished by the trade deals of the 1990s. NAFTA and other trade deals. My district and me personally.”
Butterfield said he will continue to research the topic, “because I want to give the president and those proponents the benefit of the doubt.” But Democratic support is “lacking,” he said.
Democrats who support TPA recognize the weak numbers and say administration officials are doing a lousy job wrangling support. They’re spending too much time on policyand no time on politics and casting too wide a net in search of elusive support.
“I’m sure there’s lots more that could be done, should’ve been done, should be done, will be done, but I think the … more-information phase is over,” said Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.), a member of the moderate New Democrat Coalition, who is attending the White House meeting Thursday. “This isn’t going to be decided on, ‘If you get more information you’ll see what I see.’ And the sooner the White House takes cognizance of that, the better.”
The trade fight is turning into a battle over “raw numbers,” Connolly added. “What’s the universe we’ve got, and what’s the universe they’ve got.”
However, Connolly, who is generally supportive of the pact, added, “This is President Barack Obama’s trade deal, and we shouldn’t allow Democrats to forget that.”
Republican leadership, which has been supportive of Obama’s trade agenda, recognizes the deep distrust of the president in their ranks. And they’re now trying to publicly reflect the reality they see behind the scenes: There’s still a lot of work to be done.
“We’re still working through,” House Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) said Wednesday. “But this is going to be a bipartisan effort. And we want to see that equal push from the administration.”
Failing to pass TPA would be an enormous defeat for the major power centers in Washington — but especially for Obama, who has made this trade deal central to his second-term economic agenda. Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) is supportive of free trade and the TPA bill, which was shepherded by his close ally Ryan, and he is pushing for the legislation in closed meetings.
“Last week, the Ways and Means Committee advanced its bipartisan TPA bill, legislation that will help us achieve the best trade agreements for American workers and job creators,” Boehner said during a Wednesday morning meeting, according to a source in the room. “This is a key Republican economic priority, and I look forward to working with Paul and everyone in this room to pass this bill.”
Boehner has long made clear that Democrats would have to provide a significant number of votes to get the bill through the House. But Democratic leaders are actively working against Obama. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has already backed an alternative, and Hoyer has not committed to supporting TPA. Unions staunchly oppose fast-track authority for the president.
Of course, it’s early, and the tide could change. Scalise’s whip count Friday afternoon is critical to charting a path forward. And if the measure passes the Senate with a big bipartisan majority, that could change the prospects in the House. Another encouraging sign for proponents is Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), whose support for the measure has helped quiet some outside conservative groups that tend to oppose congressional Republicans.
Business groups are lobbying for the measure, and one veteran of previous trade fights said the current situation is similar to the massive effort required to win approval of trade promotion authority in 2002 and a free trade agreement with Central American countries in 2005. Both passed the House with just a few votes to spare.
“It’s going to take time to solidify the numbers,” said Linda Dempsey of the National Association of Manufacturers.
Congressional leadership hasn’t yet decided whether the Senate or House will vote on the legislation first.
There isn’t much wiggle room. If Republicans can garner 200 votes — which many believe to be their ceiling for support — 17 Democrats would need to vote with Obama to pass the bill. Many Democrats think that might be tough. If the Democratic count gets too low, the president’s party will find it easier to oppose him than back him. ?Dwindling GOP support could also imperil the bill.
“I can’t point to anything that ever sails through easy around here,” said Rep. Pat Tiberi (R-Ohio), a member of the Ways and Means Committee who is also a close ally of Boehner. “Nothing’s easy. So we have to continue to educate members.”
But the fault lines are dangerous for Republicans. The opposition stems from regional issues and ideological concerns. For example, reliable allies of GOP leadership like New Jersey Rep. Frank LoBiondo and Ohio Rep. David Joyce are unlikely to support the measure because of local union concerns, aides said. The South Carolina delegation, which closely coordinates on most votes, is mostly undecided.
“We’re doing what we always do with pieces of legislation, hearing one another out and discussing what’s best for the people we work for in our state,” Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) said. “We have a very inclusive participatory delegation.”
But the problem among some conservatives is plainly political and squarely springs from their mistrust of Obama. One Republican lawmaker, speaking without attribution, said he could vote for fast-track authority “maybe under another president.”
“I need to have questions answered about ceding more authority to the president,” said House Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), who said he hoped to vote for the bill when it comes up. Supporters, such as Rep. Rob Woodall (R-Ga.), said Republicans need to explain that the bill doesn’t give the president new authority that he didn’t already have.
“Nobody wants to give this president anything. But that’s not what it is, of course; it’s restricting the president, it’s incorporating the House’s opinion,” he said. “That’s the challenge back home.”
But at this point, many staunch conservatives are squarely aligned with Chaffetz, and it’s an open question where the House Freedom Caucus — which is gaining power as a conservative bloc — will end up. Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.), a member, said there are “widespread concerns” among conservatives, even those who have supported free trade in the past.
“I think there are concerns about the process,” said Amash, who added he is not finished reviewing the bill. “What kind of review rank-and-file members of Congress will have on trade deals and who gets to assert that the president is not complying with the objectives.”
Rep. Dave Brat (R-Va.), also a Freedom Caucus member, said he’s leaning no.
“I want a big debate in the conference as a whole,” Brat said. “All that stuff has been nontransparent — putting the bill together.”
But Rep. Thomas Massie, a libertarian-leaning Republican from Kentucky, said he doesn’t understand the fuss about ensuring that Obama’s trade deals receive an up-or-down vote.
“I don’t see what’s unique about that — 95 percent of the stuff we vote on is a closed rule, up or down, no amendments,” Massie said in a brief interview. “I don’t know why he would need TPA to accomplish that. The speaker does that every week.”
Seung Min Kim contributed to this report.