[A2k] Politico: Trade pact proponents claim new momentum
thiru at keionline.org
Thu Jun 18 06:12:01 PDT 2015
Trade pact proponents claim new momentum
But Democrats are still weighing whether they can trust Republicans to pass
aid for laid-off workers.
By JAKE SHERMAN, MANU RAJU and LAUREN FRENCH
6/17/15 11:07 AM EDT
Updated 6/17/15 8:07 PM EDT
Rep. Ron Kind has invited pro-trade House and Senate Democrats to a
meeting. | Getty
House Speaker John Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell made
the calculation quickly: If Congress didn’t act swiftly to send President
Barack Obama a fast-track trade bill, it might never get done.
With that in mind, the Democratic president and the two Republican leaders
embarked on their most intense bipartisan negotiating spree in recent
memory, speaking on private conference calls, scheduling meetings with
supportive Democrats and plotting a process to advance Obama’s top agenda
item over the finish line. The back channeling, combined with some complex
procedural machinations, might allow the House and Senate to clear both
Trade Promotion Authority and Trade Adjustment Assistance before the Fourth
of July recess.
“Some of them are anguishing,” Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida said of fellow
Democrats who have backed trade deals in the past. “But at the end of the
day, I think they will come around.”
The process is likely to begin in the House on Thursday, when the chamber
plans to vote to give Obama fast-track trade authority to negotiate the
Trans-Pacific Partnership, the largest trade agreement in history. If it
passes, McConnell would then take up the measure next week, hoping to win
the support of at least a dozen Senate Democrats to send it to the
president’s desk. The Senate would then amend a separate trade bill with
TAA, a program to aid workers who lose their jobs due to trade deals,
sending the measure to the White House for final approval.
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The convoluted process is needed to surmount opposition from House
Democrats, who last week blocked a program they support — TAA — in order to
stop the larger trade package from getting to Obama’s desk. The Senate had
passed a bill last month that included both the worker aid and negotiating
authority, but further changes in the House have forced senators to take up
the proposal again, prompting a whole new round of negotiating and
posturing ahead of decisive votes in the coming days.
The entire process hinges on support from Senate and House Democrats who
support free trade but insist that the government also provide aid and job
training to help workers hurt by foreign trade. House Democrats, led by
veteran Wisconsin Rep. Ron Kind, were eager to get the trade deal done, and
were looking for assurances from their Senate counterparts. Senate
Democrats, meanwhile, wanted a pledge from McConnell that he would clear
TAA before they commit to voting for the fast-track bill.
In a joint statement Wednesday, McConnell and Boehner began to provide some
of those assurances.
“We are committed to ensuring both TPA and TAA get votes in the House and
Senate and are sent to the President for signature,” the leaders said. “And
it is our intent to have a conference on the customs bill and complete that
in a timely manner so that the President can sign it into law.”
At the White House on Wednesday, pro-trade Democrats and Obama discussed
the possibility of sticking together as a bloc so they can get TPA, TAA, a
customs enforcement and perhaps an extension of the Export-Import Bank
charter, which lapses at the end of the month.
“I and all the other members there are looking for a guarantee … for a deal
to be good it’s got to have enforcement, TAA, I think it’s got to have
Ex-Im reauthorization,” said Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.). “A lot of [the
meeting] was to talk about that very question of: What is a sufficient
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who spoke to Obama and his chief of staff, Denis
McDonough, this week said she needs to see both TAA and TPA signed by the
president at the same time.
“There isn’t going to be a TPA if you can’t tell people that workers are
going to have some protections, some retraining,” Feinstein said. “And
everybody feels strongly about that.”
Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.), who attended the White House meeting, called it
a “vigorous” discussion but said he doesn’t believe “there’s a clear
The process was crafted in a series of private meetings and phone calls
between politicians who hardly interact. Boehner first spoke to the
president on Tuesday about getting the trade deal done. That led to a
conference call between the speaker, McConnell and Obama on Tuesday night,
on which the legislative leaders laid out their strategy.
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Once the White House knew what Boehner and McConnell were planning, Obama
started selling it. Pro-trade House Democrats quietly snuck over to the
White House Tuesday morning to meet with Obama and they continued their
discussion through Wednesday evening.
“We’re trying to make sure House and Senate Democrats are on the same page.
That is crucial,” Kind said as he left a meeting of the New Democrat
Coalition on Wednesday. The group, which Kind leads, consists largely of
moderate Democrats who back free trade.
The stepped-up effort highlights how central trade has become to Obama’s
second-term agenda, particularly after House Democrats repudiated his push
in dramatic fashion last week. Since then, GOP leaders have been busy
devising a Plan B to overcome that opposition. Democrats worked hard to
lock up assurances. Their main concern was that they would vote for
fast-track authority again, and TAA would never get through the chamber.
Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) said Boehner has told him their concerns will
be answered. “He even stated declaratively that TAA will pass,” Connolly
Senate Democrats, meanwhile, want a similar promise that McConnell and
Boehner will agree to amend the preferences bill with an extension of the
expiring TAA program, a key Democratic priority.
Senate Finance Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), who co-authored the Senate
bill, said in an interview that Republicans would move to include the
worker aid program in the trade preferences plan, which includes incentives
to open markets in African countries. That’s the cost of winning critical
Democratic support for fast-track, which would prohibit Congress from
making changes to the TPP, Hatch said.
“I don’t think there’s any question we’d do that,” he said. “That’s part of
the deal. We know the quid pro quo for TPA is TAA.”
Still, some top Senate Democrats were playing coy.
Sen. Patty Murray, who represents Washington state, home of corporate
giants like Boeing that are clamoring for a trade deal, said Wednesday she
has spoken with Obama in recent days. But she would not say whether she’ll
back the House’s latest gambit.
“I’m not going to answer ‘if’ questions right now,” she said tersely.
There is little margin for error. Obama can afford to lose only two of the
14 Democratic senators who voted for fast-track authority last month.
That makes the decision on how to sequence the votes in Congress a key
consideration. Some top Republicans believe it makes sense to enact the
fast-track bill first, figuring House Democrats would be inclined at that
point to allow TAA through after having lost their leverage. But it’s no
sure bet that Senate Democrats would go along with a vote on fast-track
without immediate consideration of the worker aid package.
“I’d be surprised that many Senate Democrats trust McConnell or Boehner to
deliver on TAA after we voted for TPA,” said Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown, a
leading Democratic opponent of trade deals.
But White House press secretary Josh Earnest insisted Wednesday that Obama
would only back a plan that includes the worker aid program.
“What we have said is that the only legislative strategy that the president
can support is one that will result in both pieces of legislation arriving
at his desk,” Earnest said.
Nelson, the Florida Democrat, said the end result is all that matters — not
the process. The senator, who backs the GOP’s new tactic, told Obama as
much in a phone call that ended a bit prematurely Tuesday. As Nelson was
talking, he handed the phone to a nearby Harry Reid so the two could
quickly chat. But Reid thought the call was over — and hung up on the
president before Nelson could finish his conversation.
Fortunately, Nelson said, Obama called him back.
“He says, ‘Harry wouldn’t hang up [on me],’” Nelson recalled.
Burgess Everett, Edward Isaac-Dovere and Sarah Wheaton contributed to this
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