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Industry vows: Trade pact will not die

Business groups are expressing renewed determination to push trade legislation to President Obama’s desk, vowing to stop the House from writing the epitaph of a sweeping Asia-Pacific pact that was years in the making.

From industry groups including the Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM), to the various coalitions that have formed to press for trade promotion authority (TPA), the overwhelming response to Friday’s failure in the House is one of defiance.

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“Manufacturers will not back down in this fight for expanded trade, for the future of our industry and our country,” NAM said in a statement.

Labor unions and other opponents of trade promotion authority, or fast-track, are equally determined to fight and are leaning on Democrats to hold firm.

“We know that corporate interests that have been pushing fast-track … for years are not stopping,” said Neil Sroka, spokesman for the liberal Democracy for America. “So neither are we.”

The two sides in the trade debate have been battling for months, waging a war of words with staggering amounts of money, manpower and advertising.

The campaigns for and against fast-track are shifting into overdrive following Friday’s dramatic vote in the House, where Democrats thwarted renewal of Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA), a program that aids workers displaced by trade, which Democrats have made a prerequisite for any trade package. 

The vote was a stinging rebuke of President Obama, who pleaded with Democrats to pass TAA despite their objections to the fast-track legislation it would have enabled.

Like the White House, business interests supportive of the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) argue that Friday’s vote was a temporary setback, similar to what happened last month when Senate Democrats briefly rebelled over fast-track legislation before approving it ahead of Congress’s Memorial Day recess.

The “path to enacting major
legislation is never easy,” said Thomas Donohue, the president and CEO of the Chamber of Commerce, one of the nation’s largest business groups.

“On trade, the unions and other groups that have railed against TPA face some sobering facts,” Donohue said. “If these trade bills are not approved, they’ll be stuck with the status quo they revile.”

But the path forward for the trade package remains unclear, putting the TPP in limbo. The White House argues the trade pact cannot be finished without assurances, granted through fast-track, that the deal will not be amended by Congress.

House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) said Monday he wants to revisit the trade bills “sooner rather than later,” but argued there are multiple paths forward. 

The Senate passed TAA and the fast-track bills in a single package, so the House could go that route, which would send trade legislation straight to Obama.

GOP leaders could also choose to split fast-track from the worker assistance, which would be risky, given the possible loss of Democratic votes. And even if that package were approved, it would face an uncertain future in the Senate.

Advocates and opponents of the trade push got back to work on Monday, with all sides awaiting word on the House’s next move.

“At this point, things are still in flux, and it is unclear what House leadership will do. But we are continuing to work with members of Congress on both sides of the aisle to find a path forward,” said Blair Latoff Holmes, a Chamber spokeswoman.

Meanwhile, the Trade Benefits America Coalition, a group comprising more than 275 leading U.S. business and agricultural associations, took to Twitter and other social media websites to thank the lawmakers who voted for fast-track on Friday, including the 28 Democrats.

The group is working up similar ads in the home districts of trade supporters while they push House leaders to find a solution to the impasse over TAA.

Unions took a similar tack, using online and print ads to praise Democratic lawmakers who voted against TAA and blocked Obama’s trade agenda for moving forward. 

“Thank you for standing with working families,” the ads say with photos of the lawmakers.

The labor movement has put its collective muscle into the trade fight, threatening to withhold support or even back primary challengers to Democrats who support fast-track.

Leo Gerard, international president of the United Steelworkers (USW), urged Democrats to hold the line.

“The USW and working people across America are asking the lawmakers who stopped fast-track Friday to again stand strong for the do-over vote this week and reject all attempts to flip their votes,” Gerard said in a statement. 

The White House repeatedly warned Democrats that opposing TAA, which expires at the end of the year, could kill the program. Republicans typically do not support TAA, and they could try to strip it from the package.

Whatever path Republicans take, Bill Lane, director of global government affairs for Caterpillar, said he’s optimistic fast-track will soon be enacted.

“We are befuddled as to why members of Congress who traditionally support Trade Adjustment Assistance choose to reject it in order to deny President Obama the opportunity to reduce foreign trade barriers and promote economic growth,” he said.

Other groups supportive of the trade agenda cast the last-ditch effort by Democrats to hold up the package as shortsighted. 

The National Foreign Trade Council President Bill Reinsch called the House’s rejection of the TAA legislation “a historic mistake its members will come to regret.”

“TAA is one of the few programs we have that helps our workers cope with the transition to a globally integrated economy, a transition that is going to continue regardless of Congress,” Reinsch said.