Obama’s Fast-Track Trade Bill to Get New Vote in U.S. House

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U.S. President Barack Obama attends a picnic for members of Congress on the South Lawn of the White House June 17, 2015 in Washington, D.C.

Photo by Olivier Douliery-Pool/Getty Images

The House on Thursday will vote on a bill to revive President Barack Obama’ fast-track trade proposal.

The Republican majority’s chief vote counter, Representative Steve Scalise, advised members of plans for the vote after leaders decided to attach the fast-track proposal, known as trade-promotion authority, to an unrelated bill. House lawmakers passed a rule, 244-181, setting the terms of debate on the measure Thursday morning.

The bill may pass, said Representative Ron Kind, a Wisconsin Democrat, depending on assurances from Republican leaders that a separate measure helping displaced workers, known as Trade Adjustment Assistance, also would be approved.

The Republican plan is designed to bypass House Democrats’ refusal on June 12 to pass the workers’ aid plan as a means of blocking the fast-track bill from going to Obama for his signature.

House Speaker John Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell released a joint statement that said, “We are committed to ensuring both TPA and TAA get votes in the House and Senate and are sent to the president for signature.” TAA is the worker-assistance program.

Most Republicans support the fast-track measure, sought by Obama to help his administration complete a Pacific Rim trade deal called the Trans-Pacific Partnership. It would let the president submit trade pacts to Congress for an expedited, up-or-down vote without amendments.

Senate Action

The Republican plan would require the fast-track proposal to return to the Senate. McConnell spokesman Don Stewart said the Senate doesn’t plan to complete action on the trade agenda this week.

Senator Christopher Coons, a Delaware Democrat, told a meeting of Bloomberg reporters and editors on Thursday that he doesn’t want votes on the worker-assistance program separated from the fast-track measure.

He also said there is a risk that fast-track may not win Senate passage again as “this is a very tough vote for Democrats and was a close call for me.”

“Bringing it back through the Senate is a very risky strategy,” he said.

The worker-assistance program, which expires Sept. 30, would be attached to another bill granting trade preferences to poorer countries, Kind said.

The fast-track and worker-aid measures passed the Senate in May as a single bill.

Boehner’s Assurances

Boehner, an Ohio Republican, assured pro-fast track Democrats in a meeting Tuesday that the worker aid program will become law, said Representative Gerry Connolly, a Virginia Democrat.

While Democrats usually support the aid for workers, many of them oppose fast-track on the grounds that trade deals have cost U.S. manufacturing jobs, and they used the procedural linkage between the two to stall fast track.

Representative Gregory Meeks, a New York Democrat, predicted that the coalition that passed fast track will come through again.

“I think that we all believe that passing TPA is tremendously important,” Meeks told reporters. “We voted for it once and will vote for it again.”

Asked if both the fast-track language and workers’ aid measure will ultimately be passed by both chambers, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi in a press conference at the Capitol Thursday said, “I can’t predict that.” She said she “doesn’t see a path” for the workers’ aid.

Worker Aid

White House spokesman Josh Earnest stopped short of a veto threat if Republicans pass fast track without worker assistance, but said “it won’t come to that” because any bill will require Democratic support, and they want worker assistance.

“The only legislative strategy that the president will support is a strategy that results” in both the fast-track and worker-aid measures reaching Obama’s desk, Earnest said. Such a strategy “will require the support of Democrats in both the House and the Senate,” he said.

The measure being used as the vehicle for the fast-track vote is a public-safety retirement bill, H.R. 2146, sponsored by Representative Dave Reichert, a Washington Republican. The measure passed the House 407-5 on May 12 and the Senate by voice vote on June 4.

Fire Fighters

The procedural maneuver that brought fast track to a new vote drew opposition from the International Association of Fire Fighters, which has spent much of the past year pushing for the underlying bill. That measure would ease access to pensions for federal firefighters, but the union said labor’s opposition to Obama’s trade agenda trumps that concern.

“House Republicans are taking advantage of the need for a technical amendment to the bill to once again attempt to force through their failed trade agenda,” Harold Schaitberger, the union’s general president, said in an e-mailed statement.

Second-ranking Senate Republican John Cornyn of Texas said Democrats will have to trust Republicans to allow a vote on the worker-assistance plan.

“As you know, trust is in short supply up here, but I am not sure what other option the president or the Democrats who are pro-trade have,” Cornyn said.