WASHINGTON, May 27, 2015 – The battle over President Obama’s trade policy will come down to a few dozen conservatives and Democrats in the House. The Senate on May 22 approved a bill, 62-37, to provide Obama with Trade Promotion Authority to wrap up the pending Trans Pacific Partnership.
The bill (HR 1314) had the support of 14 Democrats, which should give the legislation some momentum as the debate shifts to the House soon after lawmakers return from this week’s recess. House Ways and Means Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., is predicting TPA will pass the House, too. But that will require some help from Democrats to overcome the loss of as many as 45 Republicans, who by one count are considering voting against the bill.
Republicans currently have 245 seats in the House, so they could lose 28 seats and still have a majority for TPA, assuming there were no Democratic votes. But there will be Democratic support; the question is how much. One pro-trade Democrat, Kurt Schrader of Oregon, has predicted there will be 30 or more Democrats voting for TPA, which means a loss of even 50 Republicans wouldn’t be fatal.
(There are currently two vacancies in the House, so 217 is needed to make a majority, if all 433 current members are voting.)
Wisconsin Rep. Ron Kind, who heads up the 46-member New Democrat coalition, has been working to bring on Democratic support. Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright met with his group earlier this month to make the national security case for the TPP. “There weren’t many members getting up earlier and leaving,” he said.
The conservatives who say they are undecided or leaning against TPA sometimes say their problem isn’t with trade deals in general, or the TPP in particular, but with giving Obama more authority, or the secrecy that currently surrounds the TPP text. (In order to read it, members have to go to a secure room.)
It takes a “lot of effort for one congressman to understand what’s in that room without being versed in trade agreements,” said Kentucky Republican Thomas Massie, an MIT graduate.
Some Republicans also are unhappy that an extension of Trade Adjustment Assistance was wrapped into the Senate-passed bill. TAA and TPA could be split on the House floor, but Senate Democrats will insist that both be passed. TAA programs include technical assistance and cash payments to help workers, farmers and businesses harmed by imports.
Some of the House conservatives are clearly leaving the door open to voting yes for TPA. “Conceptually I would like to support TPA,” Cynthia Loomis, R-Wyo., said at a recent event where several GOP conservatives answered questions from the media.
Justin Amash, R-Mich., said, “I want to see what the final product includes. Trade Promotion Authority is about process. It’s not about the trade agreement itself.”
The top conservative in the GOP leadership, Whip Steve Scalise, R-La., has been making the case for TPA to his colleagues. The Republican leadership is “working toward passage of #TPA that establishes unprecedented accountability over this Administration,” he tweeted the day after the Senate vote.
Meanwhile, trade unions and other TPA opponents planned to keep the pressure on Democrats during this week’s recess. Events were planned at the offices of several Democratic House members, including Jim Costa’s office in California’s Central Valley and Brad Ashford’s in Omaha, Nebraska.
The Export-Import Bank also could emerge as an issue in the House TPA debate.
Major conservative advocacy groups have so far been more concerned with whether Congress will reauthorize the Export-Impact Bank than with TPA. So alarms went off when Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., won a commitment from Senate GOP leaders to hold a vote in the Senate in June on extending the Export-Import bank.
She doesn’t have a similar pledge from House leaders, but conservative activists are concerned that the Senate vote could wind up keeping the bank alive. Ex-Im’s authorization runs out at the end of June.
“House conservatives should use every tool at their disposal to stop the advance of TPA until Republican leaders issue … ironclad public commitments” not to force the Ex-Im reauthorization through the House, Heritage Action and Club for Growth said in a joint statement.
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