The Hill: House Republican leaders zero in on new trade strategy

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House GOP leaders seeking to rebound after a surprise floor defeat on trade are zeroing in on a new strategy to grant President Obama fast-track authority.

[Reposted from The Hill  |  Scott Wong and Mike Lillis  |  June 16, 2015]

The plan is to vote as soon as this week on the fast-track bill approved by the House on Friday but to leave aside a second part of the original package that was torpedoed by House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and other Democrats.

Decoupling fast-track from a separate program granting aid to workers displaced by trade would put pressure on the Senate to pass the legislation, a top priority for Obama that would allow him to complete negotiations on a sweeping trans-Pacific trade deal.

If the House is successful, it will be up to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to get the bill through the upper chamber.

McConnell, Obama and Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) have been discussing their options this week, and McConnell on Tuesday expressed optimism that fast-track, also known as trade promotion authority (TPA), will become law.

“The Speaker and I have spoken with the president about the way forward on trade,” McConnell told reporters. “It’s still my hope that we can achieve what we’ve set out to achieve together, which is to get a six-year trade promotion authority bill in place that will advantage the next occupant of the White House as well as this one.”

“We’ve not given up passing TPA. We think it’s an important accomplishment for the country,” he said.

Notably absent from the talks was Pelosi, whose surprise decision to vote against the trade package on Friday — just hours after the president pleaded with Democrats to save it — led to a humiliating defeat for the White House.

White House chief of staff Denis McDonough talked to Pelosi on Monday, but Obama spokesman Josh Earnest said the president and the House leader haven’t spoken since Friday.

Getting Senate Democrats to go along with passing fast-track without the Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA)program could be a difficult sell.

The Senate package included both programs, and the support from 14 Democrats in the upper chamber hinged in part on that fact.

Earnest on Tuesday said the White House strongly supports the worker aid program, but didn’t rule out accepting fast-track legislation without it.

“At this point, I don’t want to go into the legislative options being discussed,” Earnest said.

“There are some that have been proposed that are non-starters in the view of the White House. But rather than shooting down all the bad ideas, we will allow those conversations to take place.”

Rep. Henry Cuellar (Texas), a pro-trade Democrat, said this week that administration officials have “personally told me they’re not going to deal [on TPA] without TAA.”

Several pro-trade Democrats told The Hill they were prepared to vote for the fast-track bill again.  

“I voted for it already. I’d vote for it again,” Rep. Rick Larsen (D-Wash.) told The Hill.

“But there are two chambers in Article 2 of the Constitution, and passing TPA over here doesn’t solve any questions in the Senate.”

It would be possible for the Senate and House to pass a fast-track bill and to then approve a TAA bill in a separate vote at a later date.

House Democrats have traditionally supported TAA, but turned against it on Friday to stop the fast-track bill. House GOP leaders had brought the measure to the floor in a complicated process that involved separate votes on TAA and fast-track. The idea was to have fast-track be approved primarily on a GOP vote, with TAA approved on the backs of Democrats.

If fast-track were already law, however, the incentive for House Democrats to vote against TAA would disappear.

But it would be a leap of faith for Senate Democrats to approve fast-track on the promise that a TAA vote could come later.

Both Michael Froman, the U.S. trade representative, and Jeffrey Zients, head of the National Economic Council, huddled with pro-trade Democrats in the Capitol Tuesday morning to assure the lawmakers that the issue remains a top priority of the White House. 

Across the aisle, the Speaker hosted a series of Tuesday afternoon meetings in his Capitol office. The list of lawmakers shuffling in and out included Reps. Steve Scalise (R-La.), the majority whip, and Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), an architect of the Senate-passed trade bill, as well as Sens. John Cornyn (R-Texas) and John Thune (R-S.D.). 

Some pro-trade House Democrats have argued that having the House take up the Senate-passed bill — combining fast-track and the assistance program — presents the best chance of enacting Obama’s ambitious trade agenda. 

“I know all eyes are on the Dem caucus right now with TAA,” Rep. Ron Kind (D-Wis.), head of the New Democrat Coalition, said Tuesday. “But last time I checked 48 Senate Republicans voted for TAA when it came up with TPA.”

A GOP leadership source suggested the different political dynamics in the lower chamber would doom that strategy. Many House Republicans are reluctant to vote for TAA, which they see as an unnecessary government program.

“Clearly they felt like putting the two together added votes in the Senate,” the source said. “On this side of the Capitol, we found that adding it in there subtracted votes.”

The unusual nature of Friday’s vote was not lost on Republicans. 

“The idea that you’re going to bring down a program you don’t like by killing a program that you do strikes me as fundamentally juvenile, politically,” Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.) said Tuesday. “I hope there’s some reflection on the Democrats’ side, because if there’s no TPA, there’s not going to be a TAA, I can tell you that.”

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