Dozens of lawmakers are withholding their support for fast-track legislation ahead of a possible Thursday vote in the House — but their votes could be in play for the right deal.
Last-second bargains have a long history in tight trade votes, and longtime antagonists in Washington’s trade wars say they’d be surprised if some deals aren’t made on the floor, maybe even while the final votes are being cast.
Bill Lane, Caterpillar’s director of global affairs, also thinks some members will try to seek deals, though he doesn’t think they’ll be successful.
“At this point, just about everyone knows how they’re going to vote,” he said. Undecided lawmakers either “don’t want the public scrutiny or they feel at some point it might provide a bit more leverage for other issues,” said Lane, who has opposite Samuel on high-profile trade votes for more than a decade.
Supporters of fast-track, which would allow Obama to send the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership deal to Congress for an up-or-down vote, are sounding a confident tone.
But a huge number of lawmakers remain undecided or are unwilling to announce their position, suggesting many votes are in play. The Hill’s Whip List shows that nearly 150 members have yet to announce a position.
Some members may be genuinely undecided, while others may want to keep their heads down to avoid the ire of whichever side they are disappointing.
And others might want to see what they can get.
Rep. Terri SewellTerri SewellA guide to the committees: House CBC to Trump: Keep Richard Cordray, ensure the protection of American consumers WHIP LIST: More than 60 Dems boycotting Trump's inauguration MORE (D-Ala.) on Tuesday said her support is contingent on whether the House includes language in the trade package that would help steel producers in her district.
Sewell, one of several undecided black lawmakers being targeted by the White House, wants language that would allow the Department of Commerce to use different pricing data when it calculates anti-dumping and countervailing duties, which involve imports being sold in the U.S. for less than market value.
“At the very least, the House should adopt measures to timely consider anti-dumping and countervailing claims before the International Trade Commission (ITC), and provide the Department of Commerce with the flexibility to use prices that are not distorted when calculating dumping,” Sewell said in a statement. “The steel industry supports an estimated 63,000 jobs across Alabama, and is one of the largest employers in the 7th Congressional District of Alabama. We cannot afford to lose even one job because other countries are not playing by the rules.”
Another undecided member, Rep. Collin Peterson (D-Minn.), has repeatedly said he has gripes about how trade policy gives an edge to Canadian poultry and dairy producers.
Floor drama and last-minute deals are nothing new to trade votes.
In 2005, Republican leaders kept a 15-minute vote on the Central America Free Trade Agreement open for nearly an hour as they secured votes. Ultimately, that package passed by two votes, 217-215, and two GOP lawmakers withheld their votes to provide the winning margin.
In 2002, the House passed a conference report on fast-track by a razor-thin 215-212 vote at 3:30 a.m. on a Saturday, well after lawmakers’ August recess was to have started.
Passage required a visit to Capitol Hill by then-President George W. Bush, who made a personal plea to Republicans.
A year earlier, House GOP leaders eked out a win on a fast-track bill by a single vote.
All three cases involved significant arm-twisting and cajoling by House GOP leaders and the White House.
In 2001, then-Rep. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) cast a critical vote after receiving assurances from leaders they would help protect the South Carolina textile industry.
The DeMint vote highlighted the danger of deal-making.
The fast-track bill’s sponsor, then-Ways and Means Committee Chairman Bill Thomas (R-Calif.), so opposed the deal offered to DeMint he threatened to vote against the bill he had written, according to The Wall Street Journal.
Lane said that GOP leaders and the president have done a good job securing support this time around, and efforts by individual members to extract concessions could be tough.
“I think we’re to the point where people are voting for good government, rather than a bridge or dam in their district,” he said. “Sometimes on the really tight votes, some members see it as a way to be transactional. … The value of that currency is diminished [now].”
Opponents of fast-track are also working hard to win votes.
The AFL-CIO launched a six-figure ad buy on Tuesday in Rep. Kathleen Rice’s (D-N.Y.) district, blasting her for backing the bill after saying she would oppose it. Unions have also run ads against Rep. Ami BeraAmi BeraIndependent investigation into Russian interference needed House Democrats identify vulnerable incumbents for 2018 cycle Dems bringing young undocumented immigrants to Trump's speech MORE (D-Calif.), another fast-track supporter.
The message to undecideds? Don’t cross us.
The Hill’s Whip List has 19 Democrats listed as “yes” or “leaning yes,” and Rep. Gerry ConnollyGerry ConnollyBudget woes hinder US cybersecurity buildup Our IT system is dying: Here’s how President Trump can save it What Democrats want in shutdown fight MORE (D-Va.), who supports fast-track, told The Hill on Tuesday he believes another eight Democrats could be won over.
But Connolly said that they “all need work” to be convinced to back the legislation.
The AFL-CIO’s Samuel said the administration had “hit a wall” in convincing additional Democrats to back the bill.
“Maybe they’re willing to roll the dice and hope that a few well-placed last-minute calls can put them over the top,” he said.