By Vicki Needham - 07/13/11 09:35 AM EDT
House and Senate Republicans are split on how to proceed with three pending trade agreements as negotiations with the White House continue over the inclusion of a worker-assistance program.
Although Republicans in both chambers agree that the program — known as Trade Adjustment Assistance — should be considered separately from the trade agreements, they differ on what procedures to use.
But Senate Republicans say separate consideration of TAA isn’t enough. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) wants the TAA measure tied to the renewal of Trade Promotion Authority, otherwise known as “fast-track.” That authority allows the White House to negotiate new trade agreements and submit them to Congress for an up-or-down vote without any amendments.
A renewal of the expired fast-track authority hasn’t been on the House’s radar. Obama administration officials have said the issue isn’t on the table for consideration right now, but that they intend to look at it down the road as negotiations advance on the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
The South Korea, Colombia and Panama pacts all are covered under fast-track because they were signed before the authority expired in June 2007.
TPA has been considered a necessity for brokering trade deals because it provides some certainty to potential trading partners that Congress won’t carve up the agreements.
“I have made it clear to the president and the White House that TAA should move on its own,” Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) said Friday. “We expect in the House to move four separate bills, and I would hope they would heed our advice.”
Without an agreement on procedure between the White House and Congress, the administration will probably send the trade agreements to Capitol Hill with TAA included in the Korean deal because it provides a guarantee that the streamlined program passes.
“We’ve made clear that a robust renewal of TAA has to be part of the legislative agenda, and including it on an implementing bill for a trade agreement is the only viable pathway that has emerged,” a senior administration official told The Hill. “So far, no other credible alternatives have been offered to get the trade agreements and TAA done in a timely fashion.”
The White House has said that TAA — a program that provides aid to retrain workers who’ve lost their jobs because of foreign trade — must be passed simultaneously with the long-delayed trade agreements.
“We are continuing to have a wide range of discussions with the administration, leadership and the Senate in the hopes of identifying a path forward,” a House Republican aide told The Hill.
Several senators are concerned that, if the House divides the votes on Korea and TAA , it could negate the use of fast-track authority in the upper chamber.
Sources have told The Hill that procedurally it’s possible for the House to hold separate votes or “divide the question” on Korea and TAA, and then put them together and still move the Korea deal under fast-track authority in the Senate.
Fast-track remains in place as long as the text of the final bill transmitted to the Senate from the House is the same as the one formally submitted to the Senate by the Obama administration.
As negotiations continue, time is running short for completing the trade deals before the summer recess, which at this point is expected to start for both chambers on Aug. 6.
House and Senate Republicans pushed the Obama administration for months to send up the trade deals. In March, McConnell and Senate Finance Committee ranking member Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) urged the administration to send all three deals to Congress “as rapidly as possible.”
The House and Senate completed mock markups of the bills last week — technically, the White House could send up the trade agreements at any time for final congressional consideration.
House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp (R-Mich.), who was part of negotiations with Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) and the White House in working out an agreement to streamline TAA, said last week that he would take up the worker-aid bill in his committee at the same time as the three agreements.
House Democrats expressed concern that, while Camp vowed to guarantee TAA’s passage in the lower chamber, the measure would stall in the Senate.
“The Speaker and I know we’re going to have to do it,” Camp said of TAA last week. “But we have to have the process settled before we can move forward on TAA.”
Camp’s assurances that TAA would reach President Obama’s desk didn’t quell Democratic concerns that the program could get left behind when the trade deals gain approval.
Rep. Jim McDermott (D-Wash.), ranking member on the Ways and Means subcommittee on Trade, said that while the House might follow through, the measure could stall in the Senate.
The Senate Finance Committee last Thursday approved the Korea deal, without any Republican support, with TAA included. The House Ways and Means Committee pushed through all three deals without the worker-aid program attached.
A renewal of TAA had support from the business community, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, even before the changes were made to streamline the program.
Hatch added another twist Monday by calling on congressional leadership to hold a mock conference to resolve issues of how to handle TAA and the trade deals.
He expressed concern over the ability of the Senate to pass the trade agreements under fast-track authority if lawmakers in each chamber take different paths to moving TAA along with the three pending free-trade deals.
“Reconciling the two bills is the exclusive prerogative of Congress, a prerogative which cannot rightfully be devolved to the executive branch,” Hatch wrote in a letter Monday to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), McConnell, Boehner and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).
“I believe we can all agree that integrity of process is an important safeguard which, among other things, serves to ensure that congressional prerogatives are preserved,” he said.
But Senate Democrats said the suggestion was just a way to slow down the process.
“This is just sheer hypocrisy and a blatant stall tactic to gum up the process of getting this package done,” a Senate Democratic aide told The Hill. “Republicans have been lamenting the delay on these agreements, and yet here they are openly working to slow down this process yet again. This is just a classic case of stall-ball.”