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House Republican leaders zero in on new trade strategy

House Republican leaders zero in on new trade strategy

House GOP leaders seeking to rebound after a surprise floor defeat on trade are zeroing in on a new strategy to grant President Obama fast-track authority.

The plan is to vote as soon as this week on the fast-track bill approved by the House on Friday but to leave aside a second part of the original package that was torpedoed by House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and other Democrats.

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Decoupling fast-track from a separate program granting aid to workers displaced by trade would put pressure on the Senate to pass the legislation, a top priority for Obama that would allow him to complete negotiations on a sweeping trans-Pacific trade deal.

If the House is successful, it will be up to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellElection Countdown: Takeaways from heated Florida governor's debate | DNC chief pushes back on 'blue wave' talk | Manchin faces progressive backlash | Trump heads to Houston rally | Obama in Las Vegas | Signs of huge midterm turnout Sanders: Democrats ‘absolutely’ have chance to win back rural America  Trump privately ready to blame Ryan and McConnell if Republicans lose midterms: report MORE (R-Ky.) to get the bill through the upper chamber.

McConnell, Obama and Speaker John BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerHouston Chronicle endorses Beto O'Rourke in Texas Senate race The Hill's 12:30 Report — Presented by Citi — House postpones Rosenstein meeting | Trump hits Dems over Medicare for all | Hurricane Michael nears landfall Kavanaugh becomes new flashpoint in midterms defined by anger MORE (R-Ohio) have been discussing their options this week, and McConnell on Tuesday expressed optimism that fast-track, also known as trade promotion authority (TPA), will become law.

“The Speaker and I have spoken with the president about the way forward on trade,” McConnell told reporters. “It’s still my hope that we can achieve what we’ve set out to achieve together, which is to get a six-year trade promotion authority bill in place that will advantage the next occupant of the White House as well as this one.”

“We’ve not given up passing TPA. We think it’s an important accomplishment for the country,” he said.

Notably absent from the talks was Pelosi, whose surprise decision to vote against the trade package on Friday — just hours after the president pleaded with Democrats to save it — led to a humiliating defeat for the White House.

White House chief of staff Denis McDonoughDenis Richard McDonoughLive coverage: Justice IG testifies before House on report criticizing FBI Ex-Obama chief of staff: Obama's Russia response was 'watered down' Former Obama officials launch advocacy group aimed at Trump's foreign policy MORE talked to Pelosi on Monday, but Obama spokesman Josh Earnest said the president and the House leader haven’t spoken since Friday.

Getting Senate Democrats to go along with passing fast-track without the Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA)program could be a difficult sell.

The Senate package included both programs, and the support from 14 Democrats in the upper chamber hinged in part on that fact.

Earnest on Tuesday said the White House strongly supports the worker aid program, but didn’t rule out accepting fast-track legislation without it.

“At this point, I don’t want to go into the legislative options being discussed,” Earnest said.

“There are some that have been proposed that are non-starters in the view of the White House. But rather than shooting down all the bad ideas, we will allow those conversations to take place.”

Rep. Henry Cuellar (Texas), a pro-trade Democrat, said this week that administration officials have “personally told me they’re not going to deal [on TPA] without TAA.”

Several pro-trade Democrats told The Hill they were prepared to vote for the fast-track bill again.  

“I voted for it already. I’d vote for it again,” Rep. Rick LarsenRichard (Rick) Ray LarsenTransportation Department watchdog to examine airplane cabin evacuation standards Dems win nail-biter in charity congressional soccer game Overnight Finance: Trump signs repeal of auto-loan policy | Justices uphold contracts that bar employee class-action suits | US, China trade war 'on hold' MORE (D-Wash.) told The Hill.

“But there are two chambers in Article One of the Constitution, and passing TPA over here doesn’t solve any questions in the Senate.”

It would be possible for the Senate and House to pass a fast-track bill and to then approve a TAA bill in a separate vote at a later date.

House Democrats have traditionally supported TAA, but turned against it on Friday to stop the fast-track bill. House GOP leaders had brought the measure to the floor in a complicated process that involved separate votes on TAA and fast-track. The idea was to have fast-track be approved primarily on a GOP vote, with TAA approved on the backs of Democrats.

If fast-track were already law, however, the incentive for House Democrats to vote against TAA would disappear.

But it would be a leap of faith for Senate Democrats to approve fast-track on the promise that a TAA vote could come later.

Both Michael FromanMichael B.G. FromanUS trade rep spent nearly M to furnish offices: report Overnight Finance: Trump hits China on currency manipulation, countering Treasury | Trump taps two for Fed board | Tax deadline revives fight over GOP overhaul | Justices set to hear online sales tax case Froman joins Mastercard to oversee global business expansion MORE, the U.S. trade representative, and Jeffrey Zients, head of the National Economic Council, huddled with pro-trade Democrats in the Capitol Tuesday morning to assure the lawmakers that the issue remains a top priority of the White House. 

Across the aisle, the Speaker hosted a series of Tuesday afternoon meetings in his Capitol office. The list of lawmakers shuffling in and out included Reps. Steve Scalise (R-La.), the majority whip, and Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanElection Countdown: Takeaways from heated Florida governor's debate | DNC chief pushes back on 'blue wave' talk | Manchin faces progressive backlash | Trump heads to Houston rally | Obama in Las Vegas | Signs of huge midterm turnout Will the Federal Reserve make a mistake by shifting to inflation? Sanders: Democrats ‘absolutely’ have chance to win back rural America  MORE (R-Wis.), an architect of the Senate-passed trade bill, as well as Sens. John CornynJohn CornynManchin wrestles with progressive backlash in West Virginia O'Rourke's rise raises hopes for Texas Dems down ballot Five takeaways from Cruz, O'Rourke debate showdown MORE (R-Texas) and John ThuneJohn Randolph ThuneDemocrats slide in battle for Senate Through a national commitment to youth sports, we can break the obesity cycle Florida politics play into disaster relief debate MORE (R-S.D.). 

Some pro-trade House Democrats have argued that having the House take up the Senate-passed bill — combining fast-track and the assistance program — presents the best chance of enacting Obama’s ambitious trade agenda. 

“I know all eyes are on the Dem caucus right now with TAA,” Rep. Ron KindRonald (Ron) James KindFarm bill negotiators should take advantage of the moment America’s ball cap industry is in trouble The bipartisan PACT Act would ensure access to life-saving bone marrow transplants for Medicare beneficiaries MORE (D-Wis.), head of the New Democrat Coalition, said Tuesday. “But last time I checked 48 Senate Republicans voted for TAA when it came up with TPA.”

A GOP leadership source suggested the different political dynamics in the lower chamber would doom that strategy. Many House Republicans are reluctant to vote for TAA, which they see as an unnecessary government program.

“Clearly they felt like putting the two together added votes in the Senate,” the source said. “On this side of the Capitol, we found that adding it in there subtracted votes.”

The unusual nature of Friday’s vote was not lost on Republicans. 

“The idea that you’re going to bring down a program you don’t like by killing a program that you do strikes me as fundamentally juvenile, politically,” Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.) said Tuesday. “I hope there’s some reflection on the Democrats’ side, because if there’s no TPA, there’s not going to be a TAA, I can tell you that.”

Vicki Needham and Jordan Fabian contributed.