The Obama administration and Republican leaders don’t have a clear plan to resurrect the president’s trade agenda and are giving themselves until the end of July to find a way to overcome resistance from congressional Democrats.
House Republican leaders and President Barack Obama’s spokesman insisted they will win passage of negotiating authority that Obama says he needs to wrap up a free-trade accord central to his strategy in Asia.
“We’re still looking for a path forward,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest told reporters on Tuesday. “There’s not a specific one that we’ve endorsed at this stage.”
House Speaker John Boehner told reporters that “we’re committed to getting TPA as soon as possible,” referring to a measure that would give the president fast-track trade negotiating authority. “No decisions have been made” on a path forward, said Boehner, an Ohio Republican.
The House voted 236-189 to give lawmakers until July 30 to hold another vote on a worker-assistance measure whose rejection on June 12 left the fast-track measure in limbo, even though it won a majority vote. Both provisions needed to be passed before the bill, H.R. 1314, could go to Obama for his signature.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, referred to the “malfunction in the House” and promised that the legislation would eventually pass. “I hope we can achieve what we set out to achieve together,” he said.
McConnell said he and Boehner had spoken with Obama about how to move forward. Earnest said the decision by House leaders to postpone until July 30 another vote on worker-assistance legislation was a “prudent” move.
The defeat of the assistance program in the House Friday amid a rebellion by Obama’s fellow Democrats has forced an unusual collaboration between the White House and congressional Republicans.
Representative Tom Cole of Oklahoma, a Boehner ally, said lawmakers will keep trying to get the trade package approved.
“My experience is when you’ve got the president of one party and the speaker and majority leader of the other party, you usually get the ball across the goal line in the end,” said Cole. “That’s a pretty potent combination. I think we’ll have some success, but I can’t tell you how yet.”
Agenda in Peril
The dispute threatens a trade deal being negotiated by Obama with 11 Pacific-area countries known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership. It also risks weakening Obama’s hand in dealing with Congress on other priorities, including a prospective nuclear deal with Iran.
The president hasn’t spoken with House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat and an otherwise loyal ally of Obama’s who led Friday’s opposition to the trade measure.
The friction between Obama and Democrats was evident on Tuesday. Maryland Representative Steny Hoyer, the second-ranking House Democrat, said members of his caucus “were put off” by Obama telling them to “play it straight” before last Friday’s vote and support the trade assistance package as they had in the past.
Earnest said Obama had no regrets about the comments, saying Democrats had supported the worker aid plan, known as trade assistance authority, in the past because it would help workers.
“If you support TAA, you should vote for it,” he said. “That is precisely the case the president made in the caucus meeting. There are some Democrats who obviously didn’t agree with the president’s approach.”
A top House Democratic opponent to fast-track, Representative Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut, said during a news conference that she and others won’t back down.
“This vote last Friday was a tipping point. And we cannot go back,” said DeLauro, surrounded by other Democrats who had helped scuttle the trade assistance measure.
Second-ranking Senate Democrat Dick Durbin of Illinois said it’s unclear whether there would be enough support in the Senate to pass fast-track trade legislation without a measure to help displaced workers.
“You need 12 or 14 Democrats; those are the people you should ask,” Durbin told reporters.
Earlier Tuesday, Representative Eric Swalwell, a California Democrat who voted against the trade authority on Friday, said he hasn’t heard from the administration since the vote despite intense lobbying beforehand.
“I don’t think you can take away from this that he’s been abandoned by his caucus” on other issues, Swalwell told Bloomberg reporters and editors, saying there’s not much the White House can offer to persuade him to change his vote.
Most Republicans have been backing Obama on the fast-track proposal, which would let the president submit trade agreements to Congress for an expedited, up-or-down vote without amendments. The Senate version of the legislation included the worker assistance provision.
House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, a California Republican, said Democrats are in their own “civil war” over the trade proposals.
Many Democrats, who blame the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement for a decline in U.S. manufacturing jobs, voted against the workers’ assistance measure because its defeat would keep the fast-track bill from going to the president.
A new vote on the assistance measure was due before midnight Tuesday under an extension Boehner obtained Friday. With the extension passed Tuesday, a new trade vote could occur any time until July 30, said committee Chairman Pete Sessions of Texas.
The delay coincides with the end-of-July expiration of the highway trust fund authorization. Pelosi wrote to Democratic colleagues that passage of a highway-funding bill would aid passage of the displaced workers’ measure.
Hoyer said Tuesday there was no chance that passing a highway bill would gain 80 or so Democratic votes needed to pass the worker assistance bill. And a spokesman for Boehner said there is no connection between Pelosi’s message and the decision to delay another vote on the worker-aid bill.
“It does dovetail, but it had nothing to do with it,” said the spokesman, Kevin Smith. “This just give us maximum flexibility until the recess” in August.