WASHINGTON — The House voted to give President Obama Trade Promotion Authority on Thursday nearly a week after Democrats derailed it, but a looming vote in the Senate is expected to put it to the test once again.
This story first appeared in the June 19, 2015 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
While the House passage on a vote of 218 to 208 revived TPA, the path forward remains complicated because the Senate will now have to pass TPA a second time. House and Senate Republican leaders worked with President Obama this week to save the trade agenda, crafting an intricate plan that they hope will get the measure across the finish line. The complicated process is needed to overcome opposition from House Democrats, who blocked linking TPA with Trade Adjustment Assistance, a program that helps workers displaced by trade and imports.
The vote on Thursday was a revote of TPA, which the House actually passed last Friday, but could not advance because it was tied to the TAA bill that failed. The new legislative strategy divides TPA from TAA and forces the House and Senate to pass both measures separately.
Under the plan worked out between the White House and GOP leaders, the new legislative strategy divides TPA from TAA and requires the House and Senate to pass both measures separately. But it could be a political gamble to convince pro-trade Democrats in the Senate, who required TAA be included in the TPA trade package that passed last month, to now agree to approve the two measures on separate tracks.
The House will also need to pass TAA separately and many Republicans do not support that program.
TPA allows Congress to set negotiating objectives and consultation requirements on free-trade deal negotiations, but also limits lawmakers to an up-or-down vote on trade deals. It is seen as vital to completing negotiations on the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement between the U.S. and 11 other countries.
While House Speaker John Boehner (R., Ohio) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky) have pledged to ensure that both TPA and TAA “get the votes and are sent to the President for signature,” there will be steep obstacles to overcome. First, the Senate must pass a 60-vote cloture measure that is expected to come up early next week, as well as a final vote on passage, which requires a simple majority. The Senate will also have to pass TAA under similar procedures.
Trade experts said the prospects were still good for the trade measures, despite all of the procedural hurdles in the way.
“I do think it is now a done deal,” said Gary Hufbauer, a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics. “They will find enough votes from Democrats to get TPA through because after all there will be a lot of Democrats that are not coming up for reelection in 2016. Obama still has the power of the presidency and they can pick out one or two that are most likely to shift because they are not up for reelection until 2018.”
Hufbauer also said he expects TAA to pass in the House, despite the revolt by Democrats last week.
“The only reason that [Richard] Trumka [AFL-CIO president] and [Nancy] Pelosi [House minority leader] played the Machiavellian route on TAA last week is they wanted to defeat TPA,” Hufbauer said. “But once they get a [separate] TPA vote done in both the House and Senate, they will vote for TAA. It benefits their constituencies and it has been a Democratic priority for 50 years. How can they vote against it?”
“If TPA gets through the Senate, then the prospects of it all coming together are good,” said Joshua Meltzer, a fellow in Global Economy and Development at the Brookings Institution. “The odds are that it will pass.”
Meltzer said the wrinkle is convincing Democrats in the Senate to vote on a TPA bill without TAA, with the assurance that there will be a separate vote on TAA. If the Senate is successful in passing both bills, Meltzer said House Democrats will likely support TAA because TPA will have already passed.
Industry groups welcomed House passage on Thursday and urged lawmakers to move quickly to pass TPA.
“Today’s vote is a big step forward and we urge the Senate to follow suit, act quickly, and pass the House-approved TPA bill,” said Juanita Duggan, president and chief executive officer at the American Apparel & Footwear Association. “Trade Promotion Authority is critical to completing negotiations of the free trade agreements with the Pacific and Europe. The U.S. can’t afford to sit on the sidelines as other countries negotiate and sign free trade agreements.”
Duggan also said the AAFA urges “Congress to complete work on the trade preferences bill as soon as possible. Last week the House passed the preferences bill overwhelmingly. The package includes a number of measures that will provide immediate relief to apparel and footwear companies.”
Duggan was referring to a package that would extend the African Growth & Opportunity Act for a decade, renew the Generalized System of Preferences program that expired in July 2013 and extend trade benefits in the HOPE and HELP programs for products from Haiti through September 2025.
David French, senior vice president for government relations at the National Retail Federation, said, “We urge the Senate to quickly consider the stand-alone TPA bill so it can move to the president’s desk for his signature. They should also finish work on other trade-related bills, including trade adjustment assistance and customs and preferences. The world is watching the U.S. Congress and our nation’s commitment to free and open trade.”
Julia Hughes, president at the U.S. Fashion Industry Association, said the House passage of TPA was a positive step in the right direction.
“We recognize it’s a complicated path forward and we will be working hard with Senate leadership and members in the Senate to ensure that we have a positive outcome in the Senate, as well,” Hughes said. “There is still some procedural maneuvering and figuring out how the process will move forward. It isn’t clear. But obviously we’re very engaged and we’re working hard to ensure that TPA is approved by Congress.”
“We want to thank those members of Congress who supported the passage of Trade Promotion Authority,” said Augustine Tantillo, president of the National Council of Textile Organizations. “These members are helping to ensure that we have direct and meaningful input into trade negotiations and thus helping to provide a strong outcome for U.S. textile manufacturers.”