By Alexander Bolton - 09/28/11 09:00 AM EDT
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has made it clear that he will not schedule a vote on President Obama’s jobs package until after the upper chamber moves a China currency bill that the administration does not support.
Reid is wielding a significant amount of leverage with the White House on the China legislation, which is unlikely to be signed into law in the 112th Congress. Yet passing the bill through the Senate — which is expected to happen next month — would help Democratic incumbents on the campaign trail, where China-bashing usually resonates.
Some Senate Democrats have described the president’s position as “eerily silent.” And that’s how they want it to stay, knowing that opposition from Obama would hurt their cause.
The China measure has long been a top priority for Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), one of Reid’s top deputies.
The then-Democratic-controlled House last year passed a China currency bill, 348-79, a month before the elections, but the top three Republicans in the House — Speaker John Boehner (Ohio), Majority Leader Eric Cantor (Va.) and Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (Calif.) — voted no.
This year, 200 House lawmakers have co-sponsored companion legislation, including 56 Republicans.
Many Republican freshmen made taking a tough stand on China a prominent theme in their 2010 campaigns. However, it’s unlikely to hit the House floor any time soon.
That would give Reid and Schumer an opportunity to bash Boehner for refusing to act on a bipartisan jobs bill, countering criticism from the GOP that the Senate is a graveyard for a slew of House-passed bills.
Boehner’s office did not comment for this article.
Obama has made a $447 billion jobs package his top legislative priority. Earlier this month, Obama urged Congress to pass his jobs bill “now.” Three weeks later, Reid has not yet scheduled a vote.
Obama also favors congressional ratification of trade deals with South Korea, Colombia and Panama.
The president touted the trade pacts in a speech to a joint session of Congress earlier this month to loud Republican applause while Reid and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) stayed glued to their seats and refused to clap.
Reid later said he is “not a big fan of free-trade agreements” and also noted that he and his colleagues had various concerns about the jobs package.
The Nevada Democrat has promised to proceed with Obama’s legislative wish list, but only after the Senate considers the China bill, deftly using the Senate calendar to keep any possible opposition from the administration at bay.
Reid said Monday evening that the China legislation would take priority.
“I don’t think there’s anything more important for a jobs measure than China trade. That’s what we’re going to work on next week. China trade is a jobs bill. It’s long, long overdue,” he told reporters. “It’s a bipartisan bill, and I feel very comfortable we’re going to pass that.”
One Senate Democratic aide said the Obama administration would be wise not to take potshots at the legislation, knowing it will depend on Reid to pass the jobs package and the trade bills.
Another Senate Democratic aide predicted the administration would steer clear of the issue regardless of Reid’s political maneuver because it does not want to oppose the popular bipartisan legislation.
“Whatever reservations the administration may have about this bill, they realize how popular it is, and there is very little reason to vocally oppose it, even if privately they hope it doesn’t pass,” said the source.
Democratic senators, such as Brown, the lead sponsor of the legislation, have repeatedly raised the China currency bill in conversations with senior administration officials. Labor leaders such as Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO, have also made the case for the measure.
Baugh said Trumka has pressed Obama and Vice President Biden on the issue for years. Still, the White House has declined to take a public position on the legislation, which Democrats in Congress have interpreted as veiled opposition.
Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner has noted the administration continues to urge Chinese officials to give the yuan more room to appreciate in value but has refused to call China out as a currency manipulator.
An administration official told The Hill the White House is reviewing the legislation and has not yet taken a position.
The legislation would require the secretary of the Treasury and the U.S. Trade Representative to treat currency manipulation as an anti-competitive trade practice and take countervailing action to boost domestic companies.
It would also set into motion government studies of international monetary policy and currency exchange rates.
The Senate is scheduled to vote to proceed to the China currency legislation on Monday, and it is expected to pass the chamber next month with strong bipartisan support. The Republican co-sponsors include Sens. Richard Burr (N.C.), Susan Collins (Maine), Lindsey Graham (S.C.), Jeff Sessions (Ala.) and Olympia Snowe (Maine).
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (R) has also latched on to what could be a potent issue in the 2012 election.
Romney unveiled a Web video in July accusing Obama of not following up on his campaign promise to “take China to the mat,” if necessary.
A study released last week by the Economic Policy Institute, a liberal-leaning think tank, found that the U.S. lost an estimated 2.8 million jobs, mostly in the manufacturing sector, as a result of the nation’s trade deficit with China since China’s entry into the World Trade Organization in 2001.