The plan still faces several procedural hurdles and Democratic resistance.
[Reposted from Politico | Jake Sherman and Manu Raju | June 18, 2015]
President Barack Obama’s trade agenda was jolted back to life Thursday, as the House voted narrowly to grant him fast-track authority to finalize a sweeping accord with 11 other Pacific Rim nations.
Now, in order to score a major victory on a centerpiece of his economic agenda, he has to convince a handful of key Senate Democrats to take a leap of faith ahead of a crucial procedural vote Tuesday. So far, several are holding back.
“This is of such importance because the pro-trade Democrats have been through a lot of hits now,” said Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden, the ranking Democrat on the Finance Committee. “And I’ll tell you I’ve come to the conclusion that for many Democrats, not all but many, trade is now the toughest economic issue.”
For the second time in as many weeks, the House voted for Trade Promotion Authority, legislation that would empower the Obama administration to clinch the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a 12-nation pact that would be the largest free trade agreement in history. The vote was 218-208. Backing the bill were 190 Republicans and 28 Democrats; 50 Republicans and 158 Democrats voted against it. Eight members did not vote. Only one lawmaker, Republican Ted Yoho of Florida, changed his position from last week, switching from no to yes.
The House vote puts new pressure on pro-trade Senate Democrats, who have demanded the fast-track trade bill move alongside a separate package to aid workers hurt by the effects of globalization. On Thursday evening, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) began the process of taking up the House’s fast-track bill on Tuesday, which would be followed by a procedural vote as late as Wednesday on a bill that will include the aid package.
He promised that Congress would also soon approve a separate customs enforcement bill, another priority for many swing Democratic votes.
McConnell said he wasn’t happy about accepting the worker aid bill, but he said it was the price of “compromise” to win Democratic support.
“And so, assuming everyone has a little faith and votes the same way they just did a few weeks ago, we’ll be able to get all of these bills to the president soon,” McConnell said.
But in interviews Thursday, a number of the 14 Senate Democrats — like Sens. Patty Murray of Washington, Chris Coons of Delaware, and Mark Warner of Virginia — who backed a trade package last month were noncommittal.
“I’ve been very supportive of trade, but I always think there needs to be a package,” said Warner.
Others, like Sens. Dianne Feinstein of California and Bill Nelson of Florida, said they planned to vote in favor of the pending trade proposals in order to finalize the matter imminently.
“I think things are going in a positive direction right now,” Feinstein said.
It’s the second time in two weeks that Speaker John Boehner’s (R-Ohio) chamber voted to approve the legislation. The legislation was halted last week by House Democrats, who voted against an aid package for workers in an attempt to scuttle the larger trade agenda. This time, Boehner and McConnell devised a complicated process that could deliver Obama his biggest legislative achievement in years.
The legislative maneuvering, on which Boehner and McConnell consulted with Obama during a conference call this week, could result in Obama approving the trade package before the July 4 recess — and eventually usher in a trade deal that would touch 40 percent of the global economy. The fast-track authority is essential, proponents say, because it would bar Congress from making any changes to the Trans-Pacific Partnership after a deal is reached between the U.S. and other negotiating countries. Lawmakers would get only an up-or-down vote on the pact.
Assuming Democrats are able to win the backing of at least 12 Senate Democrats necessary to overcome a filibuster, McConnell will begin the procedural process to amend another trade bill with Trade Adjustment Assistance, a program that funds job training for workers who lose their job due to trade agreements. That secondary bill, which includes language to strengthen trade ties with Africa and Haiti, will be subject to another vote in the House.
Separating the workers aid package from the trade promotion bill is a gamble because Senate Democrats have demanded that the two move simultaneously. But they ran into trouble last week when House Democrats concluded that if they blocked the aid package they have long supported, it would torpedo the entire trade agenda. Most Republicans have strongly opposed the so-called Trade Adjustment Assistance program for displaced workers, arguing it amounts to government waste.
But to win Senate Democratic support for moving the fast-track bill without the workers aid, McConnell and Boehner have promised to send an extension of the TAA program, which expires at the end of September, to Obama’s desk. Next week, the 14 Senate Democrats who voted for the initial trade bill last month — that included both the workers aid and fast-track authority — will now need to take a leap of faith that the Republican leaders will follow through on that promise.
It’s uncertain they will.
Entering a Democratic party lunch on Thursday afternoon, several pro-trade Democrats were noncommittal on whether they will accept the House plan or whether assurances from Boehner and McConnell are enough. Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), who opposes the trade deal, wouldn’t say whether he would whip his caucus against the GOP’s latest trade gambit. And pro-trade Democrats were looking to further strategize before falling in line or withholding their support.
Other Democrats, including Wyden and Ben Cardin of Maryland, also weren’t ready to jump on board.
“I haven’t made up my mind,” added Coons, who said he is concerned that adding the worker aid package to the Africa trade bill could kill that proposal.
Senate Finance Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) said Democrats were seeking more financing for TAA and that he would do “whatever it takes” to get Democratic support next week. He spoke Thursday with Wyden, the ranking Democrat on the committee. But Wyden wouldn’t say if he would push for more financing for TAA since pro-trade Democrats have different views of the matter.
“This is going to be a little exercise in trust here,” Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas), McConnell’s top deputy, said Thursday. “I think the assurances that the leaders made are ones that people can rely on. So those who voted for the trade agreements when they were combined should have confidence that we are going to move TAA, too.”
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, speaking to reporters Thursday, said she doesn’t see Democrats cooperating with the GOP plan. “I don’t see a path right now for TAA,” the California Democrat said.
Boehner disagreed at his own news conference shortly afterward, saying he’s confident that the House and Senate will approve TAA. The speaker said he believes the Senate will clear the measure quickly, setting up a House vote late next week.
Of course, the process could be slowed at any time, particularly in the Senate, where any one member can bring the chamber to a halt. Assuming the job-training legislation reaches the House, it will also need Democratic votes. Republican leaders are banking on Democrats supporting the bill once it’s clear that Obama has the authority to wrap up the Trans-Pacific Partnership.