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Dems wave white flag in trade fight

Dems wave white flag in trade fight
© Francis Rivera

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and her caucus are lining up behind a worker aid proposal expected to hit the floor of the lower chamber Thursday, securing a key piece of President Obama's trade agenda and setting the stage for a legacy-building trade accord with Pacific Rim nations.

Earlier in the month, Pelosi and other liberal House Democrats blocked legislation extending the Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA) program as a tactical move to sink the trade-promotion authority (TPA) bill, known as fast-track, to which it was tied.

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But with the Senate set to send a stand-alone fast-track bill to the White House Wednesday, House Democrats say they no longer have any reason to block the TAA, which they've long championed as a protection for workers harmed by trade deals.

"I’m disappointed that the TAA bill isn’t nearly as robust as it should be in light of a trade agreement that encompasses 40 percent of the global economy," Pelosi wrote Wednesday morning in a Dear Colleague letter to House Democrats. 

"[But] while we may not all vote in the same manner on TAA, I will support its passage because it can open the door to a full debate on TPP."

The TPP is a reference to the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), an almost-finalized trade deal between the U.S. and 11 Pacific-Rim nations that would govern as much as 40 percent of global commerce. 

The TPP is the top economic priority of Obama's last years in office, and the administration sees the TPA as vital to securing it because the fast-track authority would prevent Congress from amending or filibustering the president's trade deals.

The fast-track opposition from liberal Democrats has been largely rooted in their concerns that the emerging trans-Pacific deal doesn't go nearly far enough to protect the environment, food safety, workers rights abroad and middle-class jobs at home, among a long list of other apprehensions.

With the TPA headed to Obama's desk, the critics are shifting strategies to focus on improving the TPP. The workers aid bill, they say, is no longer useful leverage in that fight. 

"TAA was being used as a bargaining chip for TPA, and that's why we very much resisted," Rep. Sandy Levin (Mich.), senior Democrat on the Ways and Means Committee and a staunch fast-track critic, said Wednesday leaving a closed-door meeting of the Democratic Caucus in the Capitol.  

"But now TPA is going to become law, and so therefore we should really focus on what has always been the central issue, and that is what is in TPP."

Levin predicted "a vast majority" of House Democrats will back the TAA when it hits the floor, likely Thursday. 

Rep. Ron KindRonald (Ron) James KindDemocrats, GOP fighting over largest House battlefield in a decade Republican fears grow over rising Democratic tide Wisconsin Rep. Ron Kind wins primary MORE (D-Wis.), head of the centrist New Democrat Coalition, which has rallied behind Obama's trade agenda, echoed that message Wednesday, saying that even some of the strongest liberal critics of the TPA voiced their support for the TAA during the caucus meeting.

Some top Democrats had said previously that the Republicans' TAA bill simply lacks enough the funding to earn their support. Rep. Xavier BecerraXavier BecerraSecond court blocks Trump's order to exclude undocumented immigrants from census California Republicans agree not to use unofficial ballot drop boxes Schwarzenegger: California GOP has gone 'off the rails' with unofficial ballot boxes MORE (D-Calif.), head of the Democratic Caucus, called the proposal "woefully inadequate," a description he reiterated on Wednesday without saying how he'll vote the second time around.

Rep. Joe Crowley (D-N.Y.), the vice chairman of the Democratic Caucus and another critic of the TAA's funding levels, said he'll back the TAA because the context of the vote has changed.

"It's not a perfect bill at all," Crowley said. "[But] the situation has changed. The TPA will be signed. And I think what we have to do is stand up for the American workers here. … We may not have another opportunity to do that."

The Democratic support will be needed to pass the TAA, which provides retraining and education benefits to workers harmed by trade deals. That's because many Republicans — including Rep. Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanMcCarthy faces pushback from anxious Republicans over interview comments Pelosi and Trump go a full year without speaking Jordan vows to back McCarthy as leader even if House loses more GOP seats MORE (R-Wis.), the Ways and Means Chairman who co-authored the initial TPA/TAA package — oppose the program on ideological grounds. Only 85 House Republicans voted for the TAA measure earlier in the month.

The quickly evolving events mark a huge victory for Obama, who has taken an enormous political gamble on trade by siding with GOP leaders against the Democrats, labor groups and environmentalists who make up his base.

The TAA is expected to move quickly. Senate Republicans have planned a procedural vote on the bill Wednesday as part of a larger package that includes the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), a popular measure extending trade preferences to African nations. That sets the stage for final passage in both the Senate and House on Thursday.

Some Democrats on Wednesday decried the GOP's plan to attach TAA to AGOA, warning that it sets a bad precedent that could sink the otherwise noncontroversial Africa preferences bill in future debates.

Still, even those voices said their hands are tied, and that they intend to vote in favor of the TAA/AGOA package.

"It's disgusting that they were attached, but we have to play the hand we were dealt and I'm going to vote for it," Rep. G.K. ButterfieldGeorge (G.K.) Kenneth ButterfieldCongress must protect kidney disease patients during the COVID-19 pandemic The time for HELP is now: Senate should pass bill to expedite recovery following natural disasters Rep. Clyburn on Confederate statues: Mob action is no answer MORE (D-N.C.), chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, said after Wednesday's caucus meeting. 

"Right now the TPA is passing the Senate and heading to the president's desk — I suspect that he will sign it very soon — and how are we going to look if we defeat TAA and AGOA?" Butterfield added. 

"I mean, who wins? … No one wins."

— This story was updated at 12:37 p.m.