WASHINGTON – In a political irony, House Republican leaders worked furiously Tuesday to try to revive the Obama administration’s trade package that their Democratic colleagues have put in jeopardy.
Reports surfaced late Tuesday afternoon that the GOP is considering scheduling a stand-alone vote on presidential Trade Promotion Authority without linking it to Trade Adjustment Assistance, a program that helps workers displaced by trade and imports. It was that program that a majority of Democrats in the House voted against renewing last week in order to torpedo TPA, sending Obama’s trade policy into disarray. The defeat of TAA meant TPA also failed.
The Republican leadership has refused to give up, however, and on Tuesday the House approved a six-week extension to reconsider TAA.
Several scenarios aimed at getting TPA to President Obama’s desk for his signature are in play and the situation remained fluid.
TPA is seen as vital to completing negotiations on a Pacific Rim trade deal between the U.S. and 11 other countries known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement. The authority allows Congress to set negotiating objectives and consultation requirements for the executive branch, but also limits lawmakers to an up-or-down vote on trade deals. The free-trade Republicans are in favor of TPP, while Democrats are coming under increasing pressure from unions and other workers’ representatives who feel that international trade deals like TPP cost American workers their jobs. With the presidential race of 2016 already in full swing, jobs and trade are already hot-button issues for both parties.
On a vote of 236 to 189, the House voted to give six more weeks – until July 30 – for the chamber to vote again on TAA. The vote to extend the deadline will buy time for GOP leaders and the White House to try to find a path forward on trade.
However, they will have to overcome steep hurdles and deep opposition.
“Getting the trade bill finished is frankly a large priority of mine,” Speaker of the House John Boehner (R., Ohio) told reporters Tuesday morning . “The President and I… had several conversations yesterday [Monday], trying to find a way to move ahead. No decision has been made.”
Asked whether he would consider trying to move a stand-alone TPA bill, Boehner would only say there “are a lot of options on the table.”
“I just said I want TPA finished as soon as we can get it finished,” he said. “We’re looking for a way forward and when we find one we’ll let you know.”
White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest called the House action on Tuesday “a prudent one because primarily it would give members of the House and Senate additional time to consider the path forward.”
“In this case, we are pleased that Democrats and Republicans appear to be working together to find this path. The President has obviously identified this as an important priority,” Earnest said.
Whether they will be able to find the votes in six weeks on TAA, which was defeated 126 to 302 on Friday, is unclear.
At least one large group of House Democrats made it abundantly clear on Tuesday that they were not willing to support the existing TPA and were prepared to sacrifice the TAA program in order to defeat the package again. Rep. Sander Levin (D., Mich.) led the group of 13 House Democrats, who outlined what they are trying to achieve in defeating TPA, which has become a proxy vote for them against TPP.
One after another, House Democrats representing districts from New York to California took the stage in the Capitol and spoke about the enormous impact trade and imports have had on businesses and workers in their districts. They talked about the proliferation of dormant and vacant factories and the loss of tens of thousands of jobs to outsourcing due to previous trade deals, and said it is time to put a stop to the current paradigm.
“First of all, we need to get trade right,” Levin said. “Trade impacts jobs. It impacts middle-class income. It’s not the only factor that impacts these but it’s important.
“The vote last Friday essentially was to slow down fast-track [or TPA] because TPP was not on the right track. There are many key issues that had not been essentially addressed,” Levin said. He pointed to a TPP issue scorecard Democrats released, which said many issues remain unresolved, including provisions addressing currency manipulation, stronger worker rights and environmental standards, automotive access and agricultural market access.
“The administration has really failed to address these issues and we do not want to proceed,” Levin said. “We don’t want to give up our leverage. That’s a key point. When you vote for TPA, this Congress gives up its leverage. We are left with nothing but a yes or no vote in the end.”
He said he and fellow Democrats would not allow House leaders to use TAA as a “bargaining chip” for TPA and ultimately TPP.
Phillip Swagel, a professor of international economic policy at the University of Maryland, said everyone knew TPA would be a difficult battle “but not with this sequence with the President’s allies turning against him.”
“The delay [now] is just a nod to the political challenge. The hard part is that TPA has become a symbolic issue on the Democratic side; there’s no set of facts that the administration can put forward to sway votes,” Swagel said.
“I’m still optimistic that the path will be found,” he said. “The inelegant path to getting fast-track will be forgotten with success, and the administration can then complete TPP with a view toward approval on the eventual up-or-down vote. But these past few days sure say something about our political system — and about the people in it.”
Industry groups remained cautiously optimistic and urged a quick resolution.
“Today’s vote should provide both parties with needed breathing room,” said Jonathan Gold, vice president at the National Retail Federation. “We hope that additional time will help them find a path forward on international trade policy. NRF appreciates those members who continue to support free and open trade and applaud those who have stood up in support of renewing Trade Promotion Authority, which will grant Congress with new authorities and powers over pending and future trade agreements. We now encourage the administration and Congress to get down to business and pass TPA. This impasse needs to be resolved.”
Stephen Lamar, executive vice president at the American Apparel & Footwear Association, said: “I think there are a lot of scenarios they are looking at. We’re very hopeful. At the end of the day, we have a bipartisan, bicameral majority in support of TPA.”
“From an industry perspective, we are supportive of finding a path forward,” said Julia Hughes, president of the U.S. Fashion Industry Association. “We are hopeful that there will be an agreement but there are a lot of issues that need to be resolved.”