WASHINGTON, June 11, 2015 – The fast-track trade bill cleared a key hurdle as the House narrowly approved a rule that sets up final votes on the actual legislation Friday.
The rule was approved 217-212, with the help of eight Democrats who helped overcome the defection of 34 conservative Republicans.
House Rules Chairman Jeff Sessions, a Texas Republican who has played a key role in shepherding the bill through the chamber, said after the vote that he expected the outcome to be similar on Friday with a different mix of Republicans and Democrats.
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said earlier Thursday that he was “encouraged” about the legislation’s prospects, but said many Republicans were under heavy pressure back home to vote against it.
“I’m hopeful that Democrats will do their part to get this over the line,” Boehner said.
The rule approved Thursday sets up a pair of votes Friday, the first on a section of the bill meant to appeal to Democrats by extending Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA) programs that provide cash and technical assistance to workers, farmers and businesses harmed by surges in imports.
If the TAA section is approved, the House then is to vote on the rest of the bill, which sets negotiating objectives for trade deals and establishes the fast-track process for considering the agreements in Congress. That process, known as Trade Promotion Authority (TPA), ensures that Congress can’t amend agreements.
The bill’s supporters will need a significant number of Republicans to support the TAA section, while Democratic votes will be critical to passing TPA. Should the TAA section fail, the entire bill would be dead.
Should both sections be approved, the combined legislation would head to President Obama for his signature. Administration officials say passage of the legislation is critical to wrapping up negotiations on the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership.
Top administration officials, including Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew and Labor Secretary Tomas Perez, went to Capitol Hill ahead of the vote to appeal to Democrats to support TAA.
Some hard-line opponents of the administration’s trade policy weren’t convinced. Ohio Rep. Marcy Kaptur, who opposes the fast-track bill, called the TAA vote a “trip wire” being used to set up the vote on TPA.
Republicans also were being lobbied on Trade Adjustment Assistance, a program conservatives have long disliked. The National Association of Manufacturers wrote lawmakers on Thursday, urging them to vote for TAA. Heritage Action, on the other hand, said TAA was an “egregiously ineffective welfare program.”
The House on Thursday also approved, 397-32, a separate bill (HR 1295) to extend duty-free treatment, or “preferences,” for imports from developing countries. The bill combines the existing African Growth and Opportunity Act and the Generalized System of Preferences.
Because of unusual maneuver, that bill also is critical to the fate of the Trade Promotion Authority measure. A provision added to the preferences bill at the last minute to attract Democratic votes for TPA on Friday, would negate a Medicare cut that’s contained in the TPA legislation.
The Medicare cut was put in the bill to fund an extension of Trade Adjustment Assistance programs, but Democrats demanded that it be replaced. Leaders could have stripped it out of the Senate-passed TPA bill, but that would mean the bill would have to go back to the Senate for its approval. So the preference bill was used to replace the Medicare cut with revenue from increased tax compliance.