GOP scrambling to limit defections on trade

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House Republican opposition to sweeping trade legislation isn’t breaking down along traditional Tea Party-GOP establishment fault lines.

But the pockets of GOP defections will give President Obama and Republican leaders little wiggle room to muscle a bill through the lower chamber.

Some of the “no” votes will come from Republicans in pro-union districts where workers are worried about jobs heading overseas. A pair of Cuban-American lawmakers from south Florida is opposed over concerns a new Pacific trade deal will harm trade with Central America.

Most defections, however, will come from rank-and-file conservatives who think it’s flat-out dangerous to give Obama any more authority.

“I’m a very strong believer in free trade, but I have absolutely zero trust in this president,” said conservative Rep. John Fleming (R-La.), an opponent. “If we had a president today who worked with Congress, who functioned within his limitations and authority, who respected the three co-equal branches of government, you would have virtually every Republican supporting TPA.”

TPA, which stands for Trade Promotion Authority, would give Obama the ability to submit trade deals to Congress for “fast track” approval, depriving lawmakers the chance to amend the agreements.

The trade legislation is a top priority for Obama, but also for Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and the bill’s chief House sponsor, Ways and Means Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), who shepherded it through his panel and has been furiously reaching out to fellow Republicans to build support in his caucus. The Ryan bill is key to the trade deal known as Trans-Pacific Partnership or TPP, which would ease trading between the United States, Japan and 10 other nations.

The Senate is first in line to take up the fast-track legislation, and is expected to pass it on a bipartisan vote.

For weeks, Ryan has been huddling with small groups of House Republicans, educating members about his trade bill and addressing concerns. With a vote expected later this month, Ryan has begun holding these gatherings in Majority Whip Steve Scalise’s office just off Statuary Hall in the Capitol Building, including separate meetings that took place on Thursday and Friday, attendees said.

For the first time, Scalise’s whip team fanned out across the House floor on Friday to begin taking the temperature of members on the trade bill. The “soft whip” effort came after a Politico report that characterized the Ryan bill as in serious trouble, with as many as 75 Republicans preparing to vote no.

But Ryan pushed back on that figure, telling reporters it wasn’t an “accurate reflection of where we are.” And Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) laughed off that number, telling The Hill he doesn’t get his whip counts from the press.

Yet veteran Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), a supporter of fast-track legislation who is close to leadership, predicted the trade bill would fail on the floor if a vote were taken now.

“I think it’s moving the right way but I also think if we voted today we wouldn’t make it,” Cole told The Hill.

Cole, who monitors the pulse of the GOP rank-and-file, said he thinks there are between 180 and 200 Republican votes for the bill.  “So if you’ve got both the low ends, you’d fail, and at the high ends you’d make it but not by a whole lot,” he said.

With dozens of defections expected from among the 244-member House Republican conference, GOP leaders have acknowledged they’ll need help from Democrats to move the bill through the chamber. Cole estimated that between 15 and 30 Democrats are prepared to back the measure.

But Boehner last week challenged Obama to “step up his game” to deliver Democratic votes, especially given Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi’s warning that Democrats aren’t ready to support the trade agenda as it stands.

Obama appears to have heeded the call. During a White House meeting with 30 Democrats, the president pledged to defend them on the campaign trail next year if they stuck with him on trade. And Obama will hit the road this week in Oregon, where he will once again urge Congress to pass TPA.

“It will have to be bipartisan. I would think the president could bring some people along,” added Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.), a member of Scalise’s whip team.

Until now, much of the focus has been trained on Democratic opposition to Obama’s trade push. But some GOP foes of the trade bill are starting to get a little more vocal.

Conservative Reps. Steve King (R-Iowa) and Dave Brat (R-Va.) said they couldn’t trust Obama on trade given his recent executive actions on immigration and his efforts to strike a nuclear deal with Iran.

“As an economist, I’m a strong advocate for free trade, but I find it a troublesome proposition to give President Obama more authority in any area when he continues to overstep and abuse the executive authority he already has,” said Brat, a Tea Party favorite who voiced concerns to Ryan during one of his closed-door sessions in recent days.

Another conservative, Rep. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.), said he is undecided. “It’s really about a distrust in the president,” he said. “I’m struggling with it.”

Ryan has sought to assuage concerns that fast-track legislation gives the president more power. He has repeatedly said that the measure puts Congress in control on trade and holds the Obama administration accountable on congressional objectives.

For many other Republicans, the promise of free trade trumps any distrust of the president charged with executing these agreements.

Also, Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, sent a letter to his colleagues Thursday to quell concerns that trade legislation would advance the Obama administration’s immigration agenda, a concern of some Republicans. 

“No one believes more strongly than do I that our immigration laws should be written by Congress and not negotiated in trade agreements,” Goodlatte wrote. 

Ryan called the rumor immigration could be added the “urban legend of the day.”

House Oversight Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), one of the most outspoken critics of the Obama administration, said he is “leaning yes.” Rep. Tim Walberg (R-Mich.) said he’ll get on board if the legislation is tweaked to address Chinese currency manipulation. And while Reps. Bob Gibbs (R-Ohio), Mark Walker (R-N.C.) and Mark Sanford (R-S.C.) are no fan of Obama, they have pledged to back the trade bill.

Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.) hails from a pro-union district on Long Island where trade deals aren’t very popular, but he too will vote for the bill.

“I do very well with unions, but I think free trade brings in more jobs,” King said.

Even among the new conservative House Freedom Caucus, members are split over the issue. While Fleming, Brat and others oppose the Ryan bill, two founding members — Reps. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) and David Schweikert (R-Ariz.) — are likely “yes” votes.

“We went through absolute war over how NAFTA was going to end the world, and 20 years later it didn’t do much,” Schweikert said in an interview. “So there was a lot more screaming and yelling and gnashing of teeth than the reality.”

For two south Florida Republicans, their opposition is more about regional interests. Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Mario Diaz-Balart, Cuban Americans, have heard from local textile businesses in the Miami area who are worried that the Pacific trade deal will boost competition from Asian nations.  

“They see it as preferential treatment for a lot of the textiles from Vietnam,” Ros-Lehtinen said.

But don’t try to lump all Cuban American lawmakers together on trade. Freshman Rep. Carlos Curbelo (R-Fla.) said he’ll break with his two colleagues, arguing that TPA allows Congress to impose strong oversight over Obama’s trade negotiations.

“If the President negotiates a poor deal, we can vote it down,” said Curbelo, who is part of a working whip group on the trade bill. “Moreover, few areas in the country benefit more from free and fair trade than South Florida.”

Tags Bob Goodlatte Boehner David Schweikert Jason Chaffetz John Boehner John Fleming Paul Ryan Trent Franks

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