WASHINGTON, June 12, 2015 – Democrats dealt a stunning blow to President Obama’s trade agenda by stalling a fast-track bill from passing the House despite his last-minute trip to Capitol Hill to appeal for support.
Republican leaders immediately said they would try again next week to advance the legislation, but didn’t say what they would do to round up the necessary votes.
“We are not done with this. We have the opportunity to bring this back,” said House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif.
A senior Democrat, Rep. Steve Israel of New York, called the outcome Friday “unanticipated, unexpected. … The dust has to settle and then we’ll figure out the path.”
The House took two votes on the legislation, both of which had to pass for the bill to be cleared for Obama’s signature.
The first vote, which failed 126-302, came on a section of the bill that would extend Trade Adjustment Assistance programs that provide cash and training to workers, businesses and farmers harmed by trade.
TAA, which expires Sept. 30, has long been a priority for Democrats, but just 40 voted for the section. Critics of the president’s trade policy made clear before the vote that they saw killing that section as a way of bringing down the entire legislation, which would establish the Trade Promotion Authority process for considering trade agreements in Congress, including the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
In a 20-minute meeting with Democrats in the Capitol Friday morning, Obama appealed to TPA opponents to “play it straight” and not to use the TAA vote as a way to kill the legislation,” lawmakers said. Ahead of the meeting, Republicans had informed Democrats that at least 100 of them needed to vote for the TAA section in order for it to pass, one Democrat said.
But House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., went to the House floor shortly before the vote and publicly rejected Obama’s plea. Voting down TAA is “the only way we will be able to slow down the fast track,” she said.
Another opponent of the president’s policy, Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., angrily declared that Obama’s appeal amounted to questioning the integrity of his fellow Democrats.
After the TAA vote failed, House GOP leaders went ahead with the vote on the fast-track, TPA section of the bill, and it passed, 219-211, with the support of 28 Democrats. Fifty-four Republicans voted against TPA, a number in line with what had been expected for weeks.
Republicans said they would hold another vote on Trade Adjustment Assistance by Tuesday and that it would be up to President Obama to switch the necessary Democratic votes.
“We made it clear we’re not going to shut this thing down just because the president can’t deliver on his side,” said House Republican Whip Steve Scalise, R-La. “Ultimately that’s up to the president to see if he can overcome the strong opposition from labor bosses.”
Wisconsin Rep. Ron Kind, who has led Democratic efforts to pass the legislation, said there is more support in both caucuses for TAA than the vote showed. “When it became apparent that it would come up short, that gave some people an opportunity at least for now to peel off,” he said.
Israel said Democrats were caught off-guard Friday when the GOP leadership reversed a previously announced plan and forced the second vote on the TPA section of the bill even though TAA had failed.
GOP leaders have made no move to strip the TAA extension from the bill, which would require sending the legislation back to the Senate for its approval. But that prospect could sway some Democrats to change their vote on TAA, said Israel, who voted for TAA but against TPA.
“If Democrats come to the conclusion that there is some chance that you could end up with fast-track, and no TAA, I think a significant number will vote for TAA,” he said.
Including TAA was a priority for the ranking Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee, Ron Wyden of Oregon, who was pivotal in winning Senate approval of the measure.
“Anybody who tells you what is going to happen” next week “has no clue what’s going to happen,” Israel said.
Despite the failure of the full bill to clear the House, the vote on Trade Promotion Authority was a victory for farmers, said the American Soybean Association: “Since 2007, our negotiators have been without the biggest weapon in their arsenal, and they’ve still done an exceptional job of representing American interests abroad. Now, we’re one step away from equipping them with the most important tool to establish and expand our role in the international agricultural trade.”