Pressure mounts on House GOP to vote on China currency bill

House Republican leaders are under mounting pressure to pass a China currency bill that is poised to clear the Senate. 

Democratic leaders in the Senate are expected to roundly criticize the House if it does not act on what they are calling a major jobs bill. The currency measure could become a leading issue on the campaign trail in 2012, and anxious Republican rank-and-file members have said they will buck Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) if necessary. China has been accused of undervaluing its currency, the renminbi, which has led to an unfair trade advantage over the U.S.

Boehner has called the China currency bill "dangerous," but 99 House Republicans voted for such a bill last year in the Democratic-controlled House. Boehner, Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) and Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) voted against it in 2010.

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House Democrats are attempting to force a floor vote on the legislation through a discharge petition, which requires 218 signatures.

Republican leadership has warned its members against signing the discharge petition, but GOP lawmakers said that they will join forces with Democrats on the petition if President Obama commits to signing the bill.

One Midwest GOP lawmaker told The Hill, “I’ll sign it … and others will sign it, if the president agrees to sign the bill.”

A separate Great Lakes lawmaker added that he wanted to hear the president’s intentions before signing a discharge petition, noting that Obama didn’t state his position at a Thursday afternoon press conference.

“I’m eager to hear the president’s position on it — will he sign it? I think it’s very important to know whether or not the president of the United States supports an international monetary issue of that magnitude, and I didn’t hear an answer,” the lawmaker said on the condition of anonymity.

When asked to clarify his position on the bill at the press conference, Obama stated, “I don't want a situation where we're just passing laws that are symbolic knowing that they're probably not going to be upheld by the World Trade Organization, for example, and then suddenly U.S. companies are subject to a whole bunch of sanctions.”

Obama added, “We've got a — I think we've got a strong case to make, but we've just got to make sure that we do it in a way that's going to be effective.”

Democratic Rep. Mark Critz (Pa.), who is spearheading the discharge petition on the China currency bill, conceded that Obama’s position is “wishy-washy.” But with the Senate’s momentum, Critz believes that GOP leadership and the president will be forced to act on the matter.

The Senate bill, buoyed by GOP support, has cleared two procedural hurdles and is expected to clear the upper chamber soon.

Critz said: “The administration didn’t say emphatically that they were against it. They obviously didn’t come out and say they were all for it either so I can’t predict what this administration’s going to do. I think there’s enough, populist support for doing something. I think it’s sort of a snowball that’s rolling. I don’t know that whatever the administration’s thoughts are, that it’s something they can stop once it gets rolling."

Critz has gathered 177 signatures for his petition.

Boehner last week called the bill “dangerous” on separate occasions, and called out Obama for refusing to clarify the White House's policy on the bill.

The Speaker on Thursday said that “for the Congress of the United States to pass legislation to force the Chinese to do what is arguably very difficult to do, I think is wrong. It's dangerous. You could start a trade war. And a trade war, given the economic uncertainty here and all around the world is, is — it's just very dangerous and we should not be engaged in this.”

Earlier in the week, Cantor was more circumspect, saying he wanted to hear what the administration thinks of the Senate bill.

Boehner and Cantor are in a politically tough position. They know that New York Sen. Charles Schumer, who heads the Senate Democratic communications shop and has been working on the China currency matter for years, will hammer House Republicans on the popular bill. Inaction by the House could cause politically vulnerable Republicans to break publicly with their leaders, fracturing the GOP conference as they prepare to retain their new majority in the 2012 elections.

The situation gives Schumer the upper hand in another way because it strikes at the heart of a House Republican talking point — that the Senate is the graveyard of legislation that would help the ailing economy.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), a long-time critic of China, is also beating the drum for action. In a release, Pelosi said, "By demanding that China end its manipulation of its currency, we could level the playing field for American workers and businesses, and cut our trade deficit with China — at no cost to taxpayers. Now is the time for the House Republican leadership to stand with American workers by allowing the House to pass the bipartisan China currency bill, and put more Americans back to work."

Democrats could also use Boehner's words against him. During the contentious debate over funding the government, Boehner last month said, "I have no fear in allowing the House to work its will."

Boehner, a veteran of the legislative process, appears to have some options. He could move a House bill that is different than the Senate version, putting the onus on the White House to help negotiate a deal between the chambers. That would likely satisfy House Republicans who favor action on China currency while also giving them political cover for their reelection races.

Last year, 99 House Republicans voted for the currency legislation that passed in a vote of 348-79. Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers (R-Ky.), Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.) and other high-ranking Republicans were among the co-sponsors of the bill; Chief Deputy Whip Peter Roskam (R-Ill.) and Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp (R-Mich.) also voted for it. Roskam and Upton told The Hill that they have no intention of signing a discharge petition.

Rogers raised some eyebrows last week when he signed the discharge petition before removing his name the following day.

Rogers explained to The Hill, “Well, I did it in the spur of the moment. I didn’t realize what it was all about.”

Asked if leaders applied pressure, Rogers said that “leadership has taken a very strong position — and I sort of consider myself in a leadership role.”

Critz thinks that Rogers knew exactly what he was doing when he signed the petition: “Obviously that was a shot across somebody’s bow — he’s been around too long. Because you’ve got to walk up ... request it and then sign it."

The Pennsylvania Democrat intends to continue his attempt to convince reluctant Republicans to sign the petition.

Fellow Pennsylvania delegation colleagues Reps. Jim Gerlach (R) and Tim Murphy (R) have been strong proponents of the currency bill. 

Gerlach said, however, that he would need to talk to leadership before signing onto a discharge petition.

“I’d have to talk to our leadership about where they are on this whole thing, where it may go, before I could sign it — but I’m for the bill,” Gerlach told The Hill.

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He took issue with the notion that the measure would somehow start a trade war with China.

“I think the Chinese need to be sent a signal that they need to change the way they are trading with us – and I think this bill does that,” Gerlach said.

A colleague familiar with Murphy’s situation says that he “wants to sign” the discharge petition but is “trying to work it internally because [he is a] team player so he is trying to get it through the normal channels.”

But an aide in Murphy’s office told The Hill that Murphy “doesn’t plan to sign it because it’s now being used more as a political weapon against Republicans than as a process measure to effect a policy change. The obstacles preventing the U.S. from holding China accountable for currency manipulation aren't found in the House or with Republicans for that matter.”

That position clashes with a press release that the Pennsylvania Republican issued last month.

On Sept. 20, Murphy demanded that Congress take up “his bill, the Currency Reform for Fair Trade Act, which would hold China accountable for its illegal currency manipulation” that “died due to inaction by the Senate and administration.”

Murphy cited a report by the Economic Policy Institute that the “U.S.-China trade deficit cost Americans 2.8 million jobs this past decade.”

“Congress and the White House cannot stand by as factories shutter and millions of good-paying manufacturing jobs continue to disappear. Enacting H.R. 639 would send a message immediately that America intends to remain the largest manufacturing nation in the world,” Murphy said in the statement.