Another 'Procedural SNAFU' On Trade

Matt Vespa
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Posted: Jun 15, 2015 2:50 PM
Another 'Procedural SNAFU' On Trade

House Democrats decided to hit the brakes on Obama’s trade agenda last Friday, voting against the Trade Adjustment Assistance provision (302-126), which had to be passed in conjunction with Trade Provisional Authority (TPA aka fast-track) in order to send the agreement to the president’s desk for his signature. The House was voting on the Senate version of the agreement. It was quite the rejection. Only 40 Democrats and 86 Republicans voted in favor of the TAA provision; TPA passed, but it was by then a symbolic gesture. As the Hill reported, Republicans needed around 93 votes, along with 85 Democratic votes to pass TAA. That’s quite the obstacle. At the same time, the House was going to be the biggest hurdle for the president given that 151 Democrats–most of the caucus–had signed a letter opposing fast-track authority and the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

There were other things that might have backfired for those rooting for this deal. Obama’s zero hour pleas to Democrats to vote in the affirmative for TAA had some walking away as if they were being “scolded” by the president. One Democrat said he felt as if he was being “taken to the woodshed.” The publication also noted that a legislative SNAFU over Medicare cuts strengthened the anti-TPP crowd (via the Hill):

TAA was already limping along by the time Obama made stops at the ballpark and Capitol Hill.

On Tuesday, Boehner and Pelosi huddled in the Speaker’s office for what was the first of several sit-down meetings and phone calls this week on trade. Just as they had struck a deal on Medicare reforms in April, the two leaders agreed to scrap Medicare cuts that the Senate had used to pay for TAA — cuts House Democrats said they couldn’t live with. They were replaced by other offsets.

But by Wednesday, another problem had bubbled up. DeLauro and other critics complained that the way the trade bills were structured meant Democrats would still have to vote for Medicare cuts, even though they were eliminated in a separate trade bill. Voting for Medicare cuts, opponents argued, was tantamount to political suicide.

GOP leaders scrambled to address that technical issue, too, but by then, the die had already been cast.

“When the pay-for was characterized by opponents as a Medicare cut, that became politically unpalatable” to many Democrats, Rep. Rick Larsen (D-Wash.), who backed the trade bills, told The Hill. “Even though it was fixed, folks continued to use it as an excuse to oppose TAA.”

Obama also had his cabinet on a “blitz” mode to support the deal. It wasn’t enough:

[U.S. Trade Representative] Froman wasn’t the only administration official buttonholing Democrats. In recent weeks, Obama had asked his entire Cabinet to blitz both Democratic and Republican lawmakers to help pass his trade agenda.

Secretary of State John Kerry defended the Pacific Rim trade deal during a stop at a Boeing 737 plant just outside Seattle. Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker made calls this week, while SBA Administrator Maria Contreras-Sweet was tasked with using her California connections to try to sway some in her state’s large delegation.

White House chief of staff Denis McDonough and Labor Secretary Tom Perez were regulars on the Hill this week as they tried to turn votes.

So, where do we go from here? What’s next? At the time of the vote last Friday, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest was not fazed by the vote; he called it a “procedural Snafu.” Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI), the House Ways and Means Chairman–is “optimistic” that TPP could be saved. It’s too important for America’s trade interests to just leave in legislative limbo. For Ryan, securing the votes for fast-track was the biggest hurdle (via Roll Call):

“The heavy lifting is over. Trade Promotion Authority which is the more difficult part, the heavy lift, is done,” said Ryan, who ran on the GOP ticket against Obama in 2012, but finds himself allied with the White House on the trade deal. “The Democrats abandoned their president … in droves. The president has a lot of work to do with his own party to turn this around, to salvage this.”

“I’m optimistic. I think that this can be salvaged because I think people are going to realize just how big the consequences are for American leadership. Whether or not America is going to lead in the global economy and write the rules, whether we’re going to expand markets for more jobs, or we’re just going to retreat,” he said. “Is fear and falsehood going to grip this country so that we can’t do anything big anymore, or are we going to overcome these things?

Over at Hot Air, Ed wrote that the House and Senate could go to conference on their bills and strip out the TAA provision. Yet, that puts the whole deal at risk given that this hypothetical new bill would have to pass floor votes in both chambers, with the added bonus that it leaves nothing for pro-trade Democrats to offer to the anti-trade faction of the party. In other words, anti-TPP/TPA/TAA Democrats have more of a reason to dig in and–again–torpedo the trade deal.

Over at the Washington Post, left-leaning blogger Greg Sargent wrote that the one thing that could save this package from being voted down (again) is infrastructure. Both sides agree that the Highway Trust Fund needs resources, but they disagree (as usual) on how to pay for it [bold text indicates Pelosi letter]:

House Democratic leaders are now already moving to use today’s failed vote as leverage to get something else in exchange for reviving it: Infrastructure spending. In a letter to colleagues today [June 12], Nancy Pelosi said:

The overwhelming vote today is a clear indication that it’s time for Republicans to sit down with Democrats to negotiate a trade promotion authority bill that is a better deal for the American people.

The prospects for passage of a such a bill will greatly increase with the passage of a robust highway bill. We look forward to working in a bipartisan way for a trade promotion authority bill that has better transparency, more consultation with Congress and stronger protections for Congressional priorities – especially labor rights and the environment.

And so, Pelosi is essentially saying that if Republicans agree to replenish the Highway Trust Fund somehow (which Republicans have said they want to do, but are stuck on how to pay for it) and improve the Fast Track bill, then Democrats might support TAA, which could result in this all moving forward. Democrats would then have a clear incentive to change their vote: They would be voting for worker protections (TAA) and getting infrastructure spending and more. It might be smart for John Boehner to use the need to get trade through to urge fellow Republicans to support replenishing highway funds, since that’s a must-pass, too.

It’s unclear how likely that scenario is — it seems like a lot would have to go right — but it seems a bit premature to declare this whole thing over.

Sargent also said that GOP aides admit that it’s unlikely that House Republicans can nab an additional 14 Congressman on their side to get 100. For Democrats, getting their members to switch votes looks like an even more unlikely benchmark. The motion to reconsider the TAA provision could come as early as tomorrow.

At the same time, we shouldn’t be surprised that House Democrats are somewhat wary of free trade. The majority of them voted against the implementation of NAFTA back in 1993, though it passed 234-200; things were a bit smoother in the Senate.

Yet, despite the evidence that TPP probably won't impact U.S. workers (WSJ reported that most of us won't even feel its impact); that TPA authority isn’t new; that this isn’t really all that secretive; that U.S. sovereignty will not be impacted by TPP's passage (we have preexisting trade agreements with most of these countries); and that Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), in general, supports fast-track trade agreements–we should all expect another shaky vote … whenever that may be. (h/t The Federalist)

For now, big labor and their allies can enjoy their champagne.