If there’s a lesson to be learned from watching Capitol Hill lately, it’s that the politics of trade can change very quickly.
For example, on May 12, President Obama’s trade agenda looked like it was in big trouble – the Senate, which had been expected to pass a bipartisan package, blocked consideration of the bill. It looked like a big win for labor and its allies, and headlines said the White House’s plans were in big trouble.
Literally a day later, senators struck a deal and Trade Promotion Authority – better known as “fast-track” – was on its way.
Fast forward a week. Last Friday, House Democrats ignored presidential pressure and derailed plans to pass the Senate package on trade. Once again, headlines pointed to White House failure, Obama’s status as a lame duck, and the degree to which the administration’s agenda is “dead.”
But the winds have shifted direction once more. Roll Call reports this afternoon:
The House narrowly passed Trade Promotion Authority Thursday – the first step of many to resurrect President Barack Obama’s trade agenda after his own party torpedoed a combined bill last week.The chamber voted 218-208 on TPA, which will give him the latitude to negotiate a 12-nation Pacific trade deal sought by most Republicans and a small number of Democrats. Just 28 Democrats backed the president, while 50 Republicans voted “no.”
The final roll call is available online here.
So, what happens now? I’m glad you asked.
Let’s revisit our discussion from yesterday, because the rumored plan is now unfolding exactly as expected.
When the Senate passed its trade package with bipartisan support, it included two principal policies: (1) Trade Promotion Authority (TPA), which is intended to streamline the process on negotiating trade deals like the Trans-Pacific Partnership; and (2) Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA), which helps provide financial assistance to American workers hurt by trade deals.
In the House, Speaker Boehner broke the package in two, in the hopes of passing both. Members would first vote on TAA, which Democrats support and Republicans oppose, and then on TPA, which Democrats oppose and Republicans support. House Dems, obviously aware of the strategy, voted to kill TAA, even though they like the policy, as a way of derailing the whole package. The House soon after approved TPA with largely Republican support.
But passing half the Senate package didn’t help. The part the House passed could go back to the Senate for consideration, but very few Senate Democrats would go along.
All of which brings us to Plan B: the House has now passed TPA again – it was necessary for procedural reasons – without Trade Adjustment Assistance. This “clean” TPA bill will now go to the Senate, where Republican leaders plan to tell pro-trade Democrats, “Just help us pass fast-track now, and we totally promise we’ll get back to TAA later. Sure, we don’t actually like TAA, but we definitely won’t screw you over.”
For its part, the White House is committed to both TPA and TAA, but the president appears willing to sign one into law and then the other – the goal was to sign them together, but so long as they both advance, Obama probably doesn’t care if they’re separate.
And that’s where things stand. The question now is simple: what do the pro-trade Senate Democrats do? In May, they voted for the package because it included Trade Adjustment Assistance, which is a progressive priority. Will they back fast-track again, confident that they’ll probably get TAA soon after? Or will they balk and scuttle the latest gambit?
Watch this space.