Onward: Senate On The Fast Track In Giving Obama Trade Promotion Authority

Matt Vespa
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Posted: Jun 23, 2015 11:48 AM
Onward: Senate On The Fast Track In Giving Obama Trade Promotion Authority

The Senate voted to advance Trade Promotion Authority (TPA) for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP); the free trade deal ten years in the making that involves 40 percent of the world’s GDP.

The 60-37 vote* was considered a huge test in the Senate, and for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), who saw his first stab at TPA, or fast track authority, blocked by Harry Reid (D-NV) and Senate Democrats. This forced McConnell to attach the TPA provision with trade adjustment assistance (TAA; a program aimed at providing relief for workers who might be detrimental impacted by increased trade.

Last week, the House voted down the TAA provision, thus killing the Senate’s version of the bill. The new attempt at granting Obama fast track authority to secure sealing the deal on TPP before the July 4 recess comes with trust. The Senate will vote on TPA first, which appears to be heading for Obama’s desk for his signature. The House took up the new legislative avenue for TPA last week, voting 218-208 in the affirmative. Twenty-eight pro-trade Democrats backed 190 Republicans in the measure. A vote on TAA is to follow shortly after the TPA is a done deal.  The final vote is set for Wednesday

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) joined Sens. Rand Paul (R-KY), Susan Collins (R-ME), Richard Shelby (R-AL), Jeff Sessions (R-AL), and 32 other Senate Democrats in voting against ending debate on TPA. Thirteen of the 14 pro-trade Senate Democrats joining 47 Republicans voting in favor of cloture, with Sen. Mike Enzi (R-WY), who did not vote during the Senate's first go at TPA, voting with them.

Last week, the Washington Post’s liberal blogger, Greg Sargent, suggested that Senate Democrats wouldn’t move on TPA, unless there are assurances that TAA could pass the House. The president already said he wouldn’t sign TPA unless TAA is also included in the package:

Here’s the problem: How can those same 14 pro-trade Senate Democrats vote for Fast Track on its own now, given that they can’t be sure that TAA will pass Congress after that? John Boehner and Mitch McConnell released a joint statement committing to pass both Fast Track and TAA (attached to another measure involving trade preferences that has broad support) out of both Houses. But there’s no way to be certain Republicans will deliver on TAA, because many of them don’t really care about worker assistance and they’d already have achieved the Fast Track they want.

The problem gets even more mind-bending when you add House Dems into the equation. The 14 pro-trade Senate Dems want an assurance that at the end of the process, TAA will pass the House; without that assurance, they won’t vote for Fast Track in the Senate. But House Dems won’t vote for TAA, because the uncertain fate of TAA is their only remaining leverage to get those Senate Dems to hold off on supporting Fast Track. So to get House Dems to pass TAA, Senate Dems will have to pass Fast Track first, because only then will House Dems support TAA (at that point, Fast Track would be on its way to the president, so there’d be no reason not to support TAA, which Democrats want, anyway).

But the very fact that House Dems won’t vote for TAA until Senate Dems have already passed Fast Track means Senate Dems can’t have any assurance that TAA will pass later, before they (Senate Dems) hold the Fast Track vote! See the difficulty here?

The solution would be to devise some kind of mechanism to assure the 14 pro-trade Senate Dems that TAA will pass the House later, if they back Fast Track. Discussions between Republicans and those Dems, led by Senator Wyden, are ongoing. But here’s the rub: Multiple Dem aides I spoke to today don’t know what adequate assurance would look like.

One possibility, floated by one aide, would be an assurance from GOP leaders that they will whip GOP votes in support of TAA, once Fast Track passes (but again, this is worker assistance). Another might be to hold the Senate vote on TAA before holding its vote on Fast Track (but again, in this scenario, Senate Dems would have to vote for Fast Track before House Dems vote for TAA).

On Monday, Politico reported that Senate Democrats were reporting that it will pass, with Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA)–who voted to advance TPA–saying it will “get over the hump”:

As of Monday evening, pro-trade Democrats were keeping their positions tightly held, but sources in both parties said the trade measure is likely to win the 60 votes needed to clear a filibuster by liberals. That would put the bill on course for Obama’s desk, after Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker John Boehner devised a complex procedural scheme to sidestep Democratic opposition in the House.

So far, only a handful of Democrats have said explicitly that they will back the fast-track bill without the worker protections being directly attached: Sens. Bill Nelson of Florida, Dianne Feinstein of California, Wyden and Tom Carper of Delaware. Kaine is also leaning in favor. That’s an uptick from last week, when only Carper and Nelson were publicly committed to voting “yes.”

Sargent followed up yesterday, writing that the TPA's passage in the Senate will probably force House Democrats to vote for TAA:

The White House is set to ramp up its case to House liberals and Dems that they should support TAA later, after Fast Track passes, arguing that a broad Senate package has been crafted around TAA that is loaded with things they should want. If the Senate passes Fast Track, next up in the Senate will be a package that doesn’t just include TAA, but also includes the African Growth and Opportunity Act, which is designed to boost trade with sub-Saharan countries, a system of trade preferences for poor nations, and a provision to help the domestic steel industry that is sought by Senator Sherrod Brown.

The Senate GOP leadership is set to hold those two votes this week. All eyes are on the bloc of 14 Dems who helped pass Fast Track out of the Senate last time, when it was packaged with TAA. The question is, if Fast Track alone does pass, how do House Democrats oppose that second round of proposals?

Remember, House Democrats support TAA, and had only previously voted it down in the House as a back-door way of killing Fast Track, because the two were packaged together. That worked — temporarily. But now the whole equation may be set to change.

After House Dems sank the Fast Track/TAA package, House GOP leaders held a vote only on Fast Track, which succeeded. If pro-TPP Senate Dems — who had previously supported Fast Track only as part of a package including TAA — now help pass Fast Track out of the Senate by itself, sending it to the president, House Democrats will no longer have any reason to oppose the TAA package. After all, they’d only opposed it to bring down Fast Track. If Fast Track is sitting on the president’s desk, awaiting his signature, then the question for House Dems becomes whether Fast Track — and the TPP — move forward with or without the TAA package. That puts them in a very tough position.

Several House Democratic aides conceded to me that if the Senate passes Fast Track, then it will be hard for House Dems to oppose the TAA package. Around 80 or more House Republicans are expected to support TAA — which means you’d need at least 140 House Dems to pass it. But how many will vote No on worker assistance at the end of the day, in a situation where Fast Track is set to become a reality no matter what they do?

He added that the game isn’t over, though this was a crucial turning point. Pro-trade Senate Democrats still have to stick together for the final vote, and enough could get shaky enough to walk away if they truly fear House Democrats won’t pass TAA, according to Sargent. Also, there’s the possibility that Senate Democrats could logroll a bunch of goodies that House Democrats want when the TAA package is being debated, which could also sink the deal.

Nevertheless, Sen. Tom Carper (D-DE) and Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-TX) got into something of a love fest after the cloture vote. Both men are in favor of the legislation, complimenting each other's efforts at communication, compromise, and collaboration, which Carper joked are the three necessary actions in fostering good government and a good marriage.

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) filled the role of the sad clown. He voted against ending debate, stating that his father always encouraged good competition, but wasn’t fond of ways in which unfair competition, like companies who don’t pay their taxes, generates an unfair competitive advantage within our economy.

“We got to do something for America,” he said on the Senate floor, while lamenting at the loss of American made goods, citing furniture as one of the sectors cannibalized by free trade. Manchin said that West Virginia certainly exports its lumber overseas because the other countries using it don’t have the quality lumber to make good furniture or decent hardwood floors. We export the best coal in the world because those nations don’t have the kind of good quality sources of energy like we do here. He added that it’s time we create something, instead of just transferring paper back and forth between trading nations.

*Forgot to mention that the Trade Promotion Authority amendment is attached to the Defending Public Safety Employees' Retirement Act.