By Mike Lillis and Scott Wong - 06/07/15 06:00 AM EDT
House GOP leaders are expressing a bold new confidence heading into the final stretch of the divisive fight over granting President Obama broad trade powers.
The vote, expected as soon as this week, is likely to be a nail-biter — scores of lawmakers in both parties remain publicly undecided, making the count on both sides difficult to pin down.
But both the White House and GOP leaders say their whipping efforts are paying dividends, with new supporters signing on by the day.
The White House won a victory last week when Reps. Jim Himes (D-Conn.), Don Beyer (D-Va.) and Derek KilmerDerek KilmerOvernight Finance: Fed steady on rates; Dems rally behind retirement rule Overnight Cybersecurity: Feds likely to keep iPhone hack a secret House bill would help small biz thwart hackers MORE (D-Wash.) announced their support. And both Speaker John BoehnerJohn BoehnerHouse GOP faces dilemma on spending bills Overnight Finance: Puerto Rico bill clears panel | IRS chief vows to finish term | Bill would require nominees to release tax returns Overnight Defense: Pentagon chief fears sequestration's return MORE (R-Ohio) and Ways and Means Chairman Paul RyanPaul RyanThe Hill's 12:30 Report Puerto Rico debt relief faces serious challenges in Senate Overnight Finance: GOP faces dilemma on spending bills | CEOs push Congress on tax rules | Trump talks energy MORE (R-Wis.) said that, while they don’t have the votes yet, they expect to very soon.
“If we don’t get it done in June, I don’t know why you’d think we can get it done in July,” said BoehnerJohn BoehnerHouse GOP faces dilemma on spending bills Overnight Finance: Puerto Rico bill clears panel | IRS chief vows to finish term | Bill would require nominees to release tax returns Overnight Defense: Pentagon chief fears sequestration's return MORE, who’s been coordinating efforts with the White House and recently spoke with Obama. "We need to get this finished. We’re gonna get it done.”
Eighteen Democrats are publicly backing the trade-promotion authority (TPA) bill, known as fast-track, which passed the Senate with bipartisan support last month. But a number of undecided Democrats being targeted by Obama — including Reps. G.K. ButterfieldG.K. ButterfieldBlack lawmakers want Labor to push tech on diversity Public schools are 'resegregating,' Dems say Fight brews over forcing library to use ‘illegal alien’ MORE (N.C.), John Carney (Del.) and Cedric Richmond (La.) — said last week that they're leaning against it.
“People have been contacting me now for about seven or eight months, [and] 100 percent of them have been asking me to vote no,” said Richmond, who represents most of New Orleans. “And I told the president in our conversation that he was the first call asking me to vote for it. And I think that shocked him that my business community — considering I have the large port and all these other businesses — have never reached out.”
Democratic support will be vital to the fate of the measure, as GOP leaders don't have the 217 or 218 votes — pending a replacement for Aaron Schock (R-Ill.) — to pass it through the lower chamber on their own. They face strong headwinds from conservatives wary of granting additional authority to a president they don’t trust to use it wisely.
“We could wait another 18 months until this administration is out,” Rep. Ted YohoTed YohoClash in GOP over Zika funding Standoff in GOP over Zika funding A 'zero-for-zero' approach on sugar will lead to a freer market MORE (R-Fla.), a TPA opponent, said Thursday. “You look at how they negotiated the release of the Taliban Five; you look at how they negotiated what they've done with Cuba; look at how they've negotiated what we've done with the Iran nuclear deal — I personally don't want them negotiating anything else.”
Ryan countered that TPA actually “constrains the president,” requiring administration officials to follow guidelines set by Congress and frequently brief lawmakers about any progress in negotiations. Members also can sit in on the talks.
And he’s been making the case to conservatives that the agreement to curb Tehran’s nuclear program would have been much stronger had a “TPA for Iran” been in place.
“It puts Congress in charge. It empowers us, not him,” said Ryan, the GOP’s 2012 vice presidential nominee and a respected voice on Capitol Hill. “It brings more accountability, more transparency, more congressional control over the process.”
Republicans familiar with the vote-counting operation say they’ve steadily been picking up new “yes” votes on trade and that the numbers are moving in the right direction. In fact, Ryan, after the last vote series of the week Thursday, told reporters he had just secured “several” new TPA supporters on the House floor, though he wouldn’t name names.
“The momentum is on our side,” said a senior GOP leadership aide.
Perhaps sensing that shift, a number of liberal groups launched an eleventh-hour push Friday urging House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to take a strong stand against the fast-track bill.
Pelosi has expressed strong objections to parts of Obama’s trade agenda. But along with other top Democrats — including Reps. Steny Hoyer (Md.) and James Clyburn (S.C.) — she hasn't taken a public position on either the TPA or an emerging Pacific Rim deal opposed by an overwhelming majority of the caucus she leads.
That silence stands in sharp contrast to the vocal opposition of Senate Minority Leader Harry ReidHarry ReidNearly 400 House bills stuck in Senate limbo Puerto Rico debt relief faces serious challenges in Senate McCain files B amendment to boost defense spending MORE (D-Nev.), who led an unsuccessful fight against the TPA bill in the upper chamber. And it has angered liberals who want her to rally Democrats against Obama’s trade agenda.
"House Democrats are under intense pressure from the president, from Republicans, and from big corporations to support Fast Track," Jim Dean, the head of Democracy for America, a progressive PAC, said in an email urging members to sign a petition calling on Pelosi to lead the opposition charge. "If Nancy Pelosi comes out against Fast Track, that will help give those Democrats important cover to stand up to the rich and powerful and stop this bad deal."
House Democratic trade supporters, meanwhile, are scrambling alongside the White House to pull their colleagues behind the TPA. Those lawmakers — including Reps. Ron KindRon KindLawmakers, small businesses praise employee stock ownership plans Bipartisan bill would cement IRS Free File program Bottom Line MORE (Wis.), Mike Quigley (Ill.), Gerry ConnollyGerry ConnollyIRS hearing: Five things to watch DC Metro fires 20 managers in overhaul effort Oversight panel sees some improvement in feds' IT MORE (Va.) and Gregory Meeks (N.Y.) — say an Obama presidency represents the best chance to strike an agreement that addresses concerns about the environment, food safety and workers rights that may not be assured under another president.
"If you vote for TPA, you can still vote against the trade deal. But you're trusting the president to put the best thing out there," Quigley said. "[Obama is] the ideal president to cut this deal," he added. "When is it going to get better?"
The TPA bill would grant Congress an up-or-down vote on Obama's trade deals, but prohibit amendments or a filibuster in the Senate. The extra authority is seen as a necessary step in the president's bid to finalize the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a sweeping accord with Japan and 10 other nations.
The pact has emerged as the top economic priority of Obama’s second term.
On Capitol Hill, rumors are running rampant about the whip count, with often-conflicting figures being floated by both sides.
Last week, Obama told Himes that he believed he had 20 Democratic votes lined up for TPA, The Wall Street Journal reported. But a member of the pro-TPA Democratic whip team told lawmakers that number might now be as high as 25 or 26, said one Democrat who was informed of the figure.
“That was higher than I thought,” said the Democrat, who has already pledged to vote against TPA.
Republican leaders have been reluctant to share exactly how many votes they’ve lined up, but leadership allies have said they will need to deliver at least 190 votes given the overwhelming Democratic opposition.
And Rep. Matt SalmonMatt SalmonLGBT fight dooms spending bill on House floor A hearing brought to tears over Right to Try legislation Time for national Right to Try legislation MORE (R-Ariz.), one of the rare conservatives backing TPA, said party leaders still had a long way to go before getting to their target, which he believes is closer to 195 votes.
“They’re clearly in trouble. They’ve postponed everything for another week,” Salmon said in an interview. “We were told they were gonna vote on it [this] week, and now it’s going to be the week after.
“My guess is, and it’s just a gut feeling, they are probably 15 to 20 votes away,” he added.
There's also a growing concern among liberal Democrats over a $700 million offset provision for the Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA) program, a piece of the Trans-Pacific Partnership providing health insurance, retraining and other help to U.S. workers negatively affected by the deal. The cost would be offset by cuts to Medicare.
Behind Reps. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) and Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), the leaders of the Progressive Caucus, more than 50 House Democrats wrote to Boehner and Pelosi last week warning that the Medicare offset would undermine a program on which more than 50 million seniors rely.
And Pelosi has endorsed that message, saying the Medicare provision is "a non-starter" for House Democrats.
"It has to be paid for, let's find a pay-for," she told reporters Thursday. "Let's not take it at a place that hurts the very people that we're trying to help."