Three ways GOP could save trade bill

GOP leaders have no good options as they scramble to resuscitate a trade package that is critical to President Obama’s economic agenda.

Congressional Republicans and Obama suffered a jarring defeat on Friday, when trade opponents voted down a workers’ aid bill in a bid to scuttle a larger Senate-passed package that would pave the way for a sweeping trade pact with Japan, Vietnam and nine other Pacific Rim nations.

{mosads}The opposition came from Republicans, who widely reject the Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA) program on ideological grounds, and from Democrats who saw taking down TAA, a program they’ve long championed, as their best chance to sink an accompanying bill allowing trade promotion authority (TPA), also known as fast-track.

Although the House passed the TPA bill the same day, the rule governing the process requires approval of the TAA bill before fast-track can reach the president’s desk.

Monday saw a flurry of phone calls and meetings between party leaders, including one between Obama and Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio).

GOP leaders huddled Monday in Boehner’s office but they didn’t settle on a path forward. By Monday night, the Speaker’s office announced that the House would buy more time, voting on a rule Tuesday that would give the chamber until July 30 to take another vote on TAA.

But earlier in the day, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) had warned: “The longer something like this sits out there, the harder it is to bring it back.”

Here are three possible scenarios that could play out in the coming days and weeks:



What might be the easiest of several options is still a heavy lift for backers of the president’s trade agenda.

As GOP leaders have suggested, the House could soon vote again on the workers aid program — a vote that, if successful, would send the fast-track legislation to Obama’s desk.

The challenge is that, following Friday’s 126-302 vote against TAA, Obama and Boehner need more than 90 lawmakers to switch their votes from no to yes. And after bucking the president and voting to derail his trade package on Friday, there are few political upsides for Democrats to reverse course now.

Rep. Henry Cuellar (Texas), a pro-trade Democrat, said Monday that he’s pushing the idea of sweetening TAA to provide Democrats more incentive to get on board — something along the lines of Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) recent proposal to include a highway funding bill alongside trade legislation.

“I think we could get a few more Republicans, but the question is: How do you get more Democrats over here?” Cuellar said.

While it’s highly improbable Democratic rebels would switch their TAA votes en masse, there are a handful who expressed a willingness to reconsider their votes the second time around.

Rep. Luis Gutiérrez, who like Obama is a Chicago Democrat, initially told his colleagues during a closed-door caucus meeting last week he would vote for the aid bill and against fast-track. But when the vote was called Friday, he reneged and voted against both.

His spokesman said Gutiérrez “wanted to make clear that he opposed TPA.”

On the GOP side, leadership aides have said they don’t expect to add many more Republicans to their TAA tally. They’ve topped out at around 93 GOP yes votes, and Democrats must vote for TAA if they don’t want the multibillion-dollar program to expire in September, aides said. But one GOP lawmaker predicted there were dozens of other Republicans prepared to switch their votes to yes if there was movement on the Democratic side of the aisle.

“I think that there are probably 30 to 40 Republicans that would change their vote from no to yes, and so they are trying to get another 30 to 40 Democrats from no to yes so that they can move it forward,” the GOP lawmaker said Monday.

Lawmakers watching Friday’s failed TAA roll call on the electronic vote board said there was a group of Republicans who waited until the last second to cast their vote, suggesting they might be open to supporting the aid legislation.

They included North Carolina Reps. Richard Hudson and George Holding, GOP sources said, though a Hudson aide denied he would flip his vote. Another possible yes vote is conservative Rep. Tom McClintock (R-Calif.), who had been whipping support for the fast-track bill but voted no on TAA.

“People like that could potentially switch,” the GOP lawmaker said.



The Senate-passed trade bill, which combined TAA and TPA, was cobbled together to attract enough bipartisan support to defeat a Democratic filibuster. It just squeaked by, with 62 senators — including 14 Democrats — voting in favor.

House GOP leaders decided to split the package into separate votes, hoping there would be enough Democratic support to move the TAA piece, while Republicans would do the heavy lifting on TPA. That strategy collapsed when Democrats, behind Pelosi, killed TAA.

If TAA fails a second time, GOP leaders might decide to push the Senate package as a whole. Rep. Gerry Connolly (Va.), another pro-trade Democrat, predicted Monday that they have the votes to pass it, though it would be a nail-biter due to opposition on both sides of the aisle.

“I don’t think there’s some magic formula that President Obama can put on the table and make all of the Democratic concerns about TPA disappear. And I don’t think there’s some magic formula that John Boehner can put on the table to make all of the Republican concerns about TAA disappear,” Connolly said. “I don’t think there are any easy options here.”

A House Democratic leadership aide said Monday that there wouldn’t likely be any significant Democratic defections, making the whip counting easier for Republicans whipping the vote.

“Any Democrat who is already on the record supporting TPA has a very clear, vested interest in seeing it pass,” said the aide, whose boss supports Obama’s trade agenda.



A third option: The House could vote again on just the fast-track bill and either send it to the Senate or try to merge it with the Senate-passed package.

But both of those scenarios have their challenges.

Because a stand-alone TPA bill would not be tied to a workers’ aid provision, aides believe the legislation would lose support from the 14 Senate Democrats who helped pass it last time.

The absence of the TAA legislation would also erode support in the White House. Cuellar said he’s been in several conversations with administration officials since Friday’s vote, and they’ve vowed not to back any trade package that excludes the additional help for workers displaced by trade deals.

“They personally told me they’re not going to deal without TAA,” he said.

But McCarthy, in a briefing with reporters Monday, didn’t rule out that option.

Cristina Marcos and Jordan Fabian contributed to this report, which was updated at 8:18 a.m. on June 16.

Tags Boehner Gerry Connolly John Boehner

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