World Trade Online: White House Sets Up Whip Operation For TPA Involving Senior Officials

Under the leadership of National Economic Council Director Jeff Zients, the White House has set up an operation of senior officials seeking to garner votes for a fast-track or Trade Promotion Authority (TPA) bill, according to informed sources.

[Reposted from World Trade Online  |  January 15, 2015]

It involves Cabinet officials assigned to reach out to Democratic lawmakers perceived as gettable votes, outside interest groups, and former government officials, they said.

U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman is involved in the effort, but Zients' prominence is necessitated by the fact that Froman is also focused on closing the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) deal, one source said. According to Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX), Froman has indicated to senators TPP could be wrapped up in two months.

The administration has acquiesced to Republican demands that a fast-track bill be passed before TPP is concluded, and congressional Republicans hope to release a bill in early February, sources said. They are also setting a target for final congressional passage by the end of March, but some sources caution that this is very ambitious.

A pro-TPA lobbyist described the activity as a "whip effort" that is targeting Democratic lawmakers who realistically would vote for a TPA bill. In late July, President Obama discussed his trade agenda with a group of 12 pro-trade House Democrats that are seen as gettable TPA votes, the majority of whom are members of the New Democrat Coalition.

The source noted that this operation shows the administration really wants to see a fast-track bill approved, particularly since it is a departure from its otherwise hands-off legislative approach. Cabinet-level officials are attending bi-weekly meetings along with White House advisers like Valerie Jarrett, while deputies meet weekly on the TPA effort.

Cabinet officials involved this operation have been assigned certain lawmakers or groups to whom they are to reach out on TPA. The specific assignment can depend on a given lawmaker's interest in trade, or on an existing relationship between an official and a lawmaker. For instance, Secretary of State John Kerry could reach out to a Democratic lawmaker who has an interest in foreign policy.

The White House push could ratchet up in the near future, such as in President Obama's State of the Union address on Jan. 20. One industry source speculated that the administration has kept this operation quiet so as not to preempt a possible announcement on TPA by Obama during the address.

"They don't want to steal the president's thunder," he said. He said he expected to hear more about the White House effort publicly after the State of the Union, and that Obama would subsequently ratchet up his public support of TPA.
Rep. Kevin Brady (R-TX) said more important than what Obama says in the State of the Union are what actions he takes to lobby Congressional Democrats on TPA.

White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest hinted that the administration would be making a bigger push for trade, when asked by a reporter during the Jan. 13 daily press briefing on how hard the president is willing to push Democrats to keep them from blocking an agreement on trade.

"The President will make a forceful case to both Democrats and Republicans that what he is doing [on trade] is clearly in the best interest of the American economy," he said.

Separately, Brady told Inside U.S. Trade after a Jan. 13 House Ways & Means Committee hearing on U.S. economic growth that he had begun to hear about the Obama administration's efforts to press congressional Democrats in order to pass a TPA bill.
"We're hopeful that the president weighs in, and we start to hear some whispers that he is -- with some Democrats both in the House and the Senate," he said. "It's going to require his leadership to get this done. His personal leadership and political capital. But I'm absolutely confident we can get this done."

Asked to elaborate on what these whispers were, Brady emphasized that Froman can't advocate for TPA on his own.
"I think it's going to take an all-hands-on-deck approach by the president and the Cabinet. And if they do that, there's actually no question that this will succeed," he added.

Chamber President Thomas Donohue also pinned his hopes on Obama being "very aggressive" on TPA in the State of the Union address. Speaking at a Jan. 14 press conference, Donohue said the president has "begun to make it clear, first of all, to his own team that he wants the Cabinet and others up there working on this. I'm hopefully that he'll be very aggressive on it at the State of the Union."

Donohue called on Obama to "really fight for [TPA], especially before members of his own party" during the Chamber's annual State of American Business address. But he added that Obama will have to "spend some time assuring Republicans of what [TPA] is going to lead to."

But Obama's task of wrangling Democrats to support TPA will not be easy, according to Bruce Josten, the Chamber's executive vice president of government affairs. He estimated that there are "200 good Republican votes for this, but you want some balance [in the final vote count]." He added that both House and Senate Republican leaderships are determined to renew TPA.
At the same time, however, Donohue insisted during the press conference following his speech that there are enough votes in Congress to get TPA passed. "We believe there are are plenty, plenty of votes to get this done. I believe we will get it done," he said.

Josten said the Chamber is also focusing its lobbying on both Democratic and Republican freshmen lawmakers, as they do not have backgrounds in trade. He noted that many lawmakers were not around for the last TPA vote in 2002. He pointed specifically to Democrats: out of the 25 House Democrats and 20 Senate Democrats who voted for TPA in 2002, only four House and six Senate lawmakers are still in office.

"The point is, there have not been a lot of trade votes. There aren't a lot of members that understand TPA, and now we have to add [Trade Adjustment Assistance] as part of that journey to accomplish TPA," Josten said. "The president is going to have some challenges on his side of the aisle inside and outside of Congress. He is going to have to work to bring some Democrats with him."
TPA passage is among the Chamber's top legislative priorities for 2015, which includes approving the Keystone XL pipeline, raising the federal fuel tax, immigration reform, and regulatory reform.

"To support our proposals on the Hill, we will further grow and employ our grassroots network of state and local chambers, associations, small businesses, and free enterprise activists," Donohue said. "We will lay the groundwork this year for the pivotal elections next year. We will be very clear about what lawmakers in both parties need to do if they hope to earn or keep our support."

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