By Lisa Mascaro, Tribune Washington Bureau (TNS)
WASHINGTON — Trying to salvage President Barack Obama’s trade agenda, Republican leaders in Congress plan to vote again Thursday on legislation giving the president fast-track negotiating authority, sidestepping House Democrats’ opposition and leaving the future of a worker-assistance program uncertain.
It’s a risky move for House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-OH) but it is backed by the White House as one of the few options left if Congress is to provide Obama with the authority the administration says it needs to finish negotiations on a sweeping 12-nation Pacific Rim trade deal. Under the plan, a related worker-assistance program — seen as key to winning support from some key Democrats — would be handled separately.
Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) issued a rare joint statement late Wednesday pledging their support to ensure that both bills — Trade Promotion Authority and Trade Adjustment Assistance — reach the president’s desk.
“We are committed to ensuring both TPA and TAA get votes in the House and Senate and are sent to the president for signature,” the two Republican leaders said.
Under the emerging plan, the House fast-track bill could be sent as soon as Thursday to the Senate, which would likely vote on it next week. But it faces a tough climb in both chambers amid Democratic opposition to the fast-track bill and fears that the worker-training program, which Republicans largely oppose, would be scuttled.
To allay concerns from Democrats who want to preserve the worker-training program, the Senate would separately attach the Trade Adjustment Assistance legislation, which provides the training funds, to a related trade bill and send it back to the House for final passage in that chamber.
Obama was personally calling Democrats on Wednesday to shore up support from the few members of the president’s party who back the trade package, and the administration summoned lawmakers to the White House for a hastily arranged series of afternoon meetings before the annual congressional picnic.
Most Democrats, including party leaders, continue to oppose the fast-track bill, and the administration has largely maneuvered around them in pursuit of a deal with Republicans and the small number of Democrats.
But some Democratic votes are still needed to ensure passage in both chambers, and those lawmakers were insistent Wednesday that if they lent their support to fast-track, the worker-training program would have to be approved before it expires on Sept. 30.
“We have to have an understanding: It has got to be both proposals,” said Sen. Tom Carper (D-DE) who fielded a call from the president. “Trust is the key. Trust wins the day. Lack there of destroys it.”
Trade policy was thrown into disarray last week when Democrats in the House, led by Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) delivered a surprise rebuke to the president by rejecting his trade package.
The original plan had been to pair the fast-track bill with an extension of the worker-retraining program as a way to build bipartisan support for the broader trade package.
But Democrats voted en masse against the worker-assistance program, which they traditionally have supported, because they saw it as their best opportunity to halt the broader fast-track bill.
The fast-track measure, similar to those passed during previous administrations, would allow the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership and future trade deals to come to a simple yes-or-no vote in Congress without amendment.
“I don’t think it’s even necessary,” Pelosi said about fast-track authority during an interview on CNBC. “It’s a convenience for the administration. It’s an advantage for the business community. But it’s a hardship for workers.” Democrats are worried that a trade deal will cost American jobs.
After last week’s setback, Republicans scrambled to save the deal. Many lawmakers were feeling increasingly confident Wednesday that Boehner and McConnell had engineered a path forward.
“As we say in the South: Get ‘er done,” said Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL) who backed the new strategy even before he fielded a call from the president, but acknowledged some anguish remained among his Democratic colleagues. “They need to get on their knees and get heavenly divine guidance.”
Republicans were hopeful Wednesday that many of the 28 House Democrats who supported fast-track would do so again. Boehner met privately with about a dozen of them this week. Afterward, one of them, Rep. John Delaney, D-Md., said he was optimistic the bills would be approved.
Less certain is whether Boehner or McConnell will be able to muster any additional Republican votes. More than 50 House Republicans oppose fast-track and getting them to switch their votes to make up for possible Democratic defections is proving difficult.
Although Republicans have 54 seats in the Senate, they must rely on Democrats to reach the 60-vote threshold needed to advance a fast-track bill.
Fourteen Senate Democrats had supported fast-track when it was bundled with the training program in that chamber’s version of the bill. Support from most of them still would be needed amid some GOP opposition.
Many of those Democratic senators needed a guarantee that the assistance program, which now would be attached to a separate bill designating trade preferences to some African nations, would become law.
White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest tried to calm concerns by insisting Wednesday that the president would sign the bills at the same time.
“The only legislative strategy that the president will support is a strategy that results in both TPA and TAA coming to his desk,” Earnest said. “It will require the support of Democrats in both the House and the Senate. And it will require the House and Senate to continue to operate in bipartisan fashion when considering this issue.”
Assurances that the bills will be signed together were key to many Senate Democrats. “That’s the guarantee that people want … and I’m one of them,” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA). “Everybody feels strongly about that, and I think the president feels strongly about it.”
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File photo: AFP Photo/Jim Watson