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 McConnellDemocratic senator to party: 'A little message discipline wouldn't kill us' House to vote on resolution affirming peaceful transition of power Republican lawyers brush off Trump's election comments MORE (R-Ky.) to get the bill through the upper chamber.

McConnell, Obama and Speaker John BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerLongtime House parliamentarian to step down Five things we learned from this year's primaries Bad blood between Pelosi, Meadows complicates coronavirus talks 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 McDonoughThe swamp wasn't drained — it expanded Susan Rice calls for Flynn-Kislyak transcripts to be released GOP seeks to go on offense using Flynn against Biden 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 LarsenDemocratic lawmaker calls for stronger focus on trade leverage to raise standards The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Biden, Harris launch Trump offensive in first joint appearance The Hill's 12:30 Report: Biden, Harris's first day as running mates 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. FromanOn The Money: Sanders unveils plan to wipe .6T in student debt | How Sanders plan plays in rivalry with Warren | Treasury watchdog to probe delay of Harriet Tubman bills | Trump says Fed 'blew it' on rate decision Democrats give Trump trade chief high marks US trade rep spent nearly M to furnish offices: report 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 RyanKenosha will be a good bellwether in 2020 At indoor rally, Pence says election runs through Wisconsin Juan Williams: Breaking down the debates MORE (R-Wis.), an architect of the Senate-passed trade bill, as well as Sens. John CornynJohn CornynHillicon Valley: Productivity, fatigue, cybersecurity emerge as top concerns amid pandemic | Facebook critics launch alternative oversight board | Google to temporarily bar election ads after polls close Lawmakers introduce legislation to boost cybersecurity of local governments, small businesses On The Trail: Making sense of this week's polling tsunami MORE (R-Texas) and John ThuneJohn Randolph ThuneHouse to vote on resolution affirming peaceful transition of power Trump dumbfounds GOP with latest unforced error Senate passes resolution reaffirming commitment to peaceful transition of power 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 KindWisconsin Rep. Ron Kind wins primary Democrats exit briefing saying they fear elections under foreign threat Bottom line 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.