The White House demand for plenary negotiating authority (Trade Promotion Authority or TPA) on the Pacific Rim trade pact has done what many thought impossible — unite the Left and the Right. In fact, it’s even united them on the same issue, the abuse of executive power …. although not in regard to the same policy areas. Key members in both caucuses and chambers on Capitol Hill want amendments to the TPA plan that will circumscribe executive power on immigration, climate change, and Wall Street regulation, reports William Mauldin at the Wall Street Journal:
Rep. Paul Ryan (R., Wis.) is seeking to prevent President Barack Obama from using trade agreements to make changes to U.S. laws on immigration and climate change, a move aimed at reassuring conservatives wary of voting to give Mr. Obama special trade authority.
Some Republicans, led by Sen. Jeff Sessions (R., Ala.), are warning that Mr. Obama could use so-called fast track legislation—which would expedite a sweeping Pacific trade agreement—not only to lift not trade barriers but also to ease the movement of people and workers. Other Republicans are concerned about the Obama administration’s recent negotiations on climate change and efforts to change environmental rules without the participation of Congress.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D., Mass.) has even warned that a future president could use the six-year fast track legislation, also known as trade promotion authority, to expedite the passage of a trade agreement that could roll back rules on Wall Street.
So far, though, the plan on the Hill seems to be to push the TPA bill forward in the House as is, although Paul Ryan has already provided a twist on that process. Reuters reports that the strategy will open with a vote on trade in Africa with a sweetener in it for Democrats on subsidizing assistance for any lost jobs in the US. That has the unions on board, at least for this phase:
The maneuvering will begin on Thursday with an obscure bill aimed at encouraging trade with African nations. The measure now includes a provision important to Democrats to finance a program helping workers who lose their jobs as a result of trade deals. The program is known as trade adjustment assistance (TAA).
On Friday, the House would then debate and take votes on the TAA bill itself and “TPA,” or Trade Promotion Authority, which is also known as fast-track.
The failure of any one of these bills on Thursday or Friday could bring the entire initiative, a top priority of Obama’s, to a screeching halt, forcing Congress to figure out new ways to get the trade package to Obama’s desk.
Early on Thursday, a Democratic aide familiar with the deliberations, said problems remained, including whether public employees impacted by trade could apply for worker assistance.
“Labor unions are whipping members into a frenzy over the issue and this is very likely to be a major problem in getting significant House Democratic support for TAA,” the aide said.
Ryan’s effort appears to have been more quiet and less direct. He inserted language into a customs bill that would impact the TPA legislation if passed that blocks executive action on immigration and climate change. House leadership wants to give TPA an up-or-down vote on the Senate bill that passed last month, and Ryan’s strategy avoids holding up the TPA with amendments that would then need to pass in the Senate. Democrats and their supporters in the environmental movement weren’t happy about the impact on climate-change policies. Ryan pledged to derail a trade agreement that had language that could impact immigration policy:
Mr. Ryan’s changes may be more symbolic than binding. Even if the changes to the negotiating objectives are signed into law, lawmakers say a president could still choose to insert climate and immigration rules into a trade agreement and enact them through fast track, if Congress signed off at the end. A spokesman said Mr. Ryan is committed to removing a trade agreement from fast track consideration if it contains changes to immigration law.
That would be easier said than done at that point, but the question may be academic anyway. According to The Hill, only 116 Republicans and 19 Democrats in the House are committed or leaning to supporting the bill, while 130 Democrats and 29 Republicans are committed or leaning to opposition. That leaves 139 up in the air, most of them Republicans. To get to 218, Boehner and Pelosi will have to find at least 82 more votes out of the 139, a tall order indeed.
Right now, the public isn’t in the mood for more free trade agreements, either. An NBC News poll shows only 31% preferring free trade over protection for American jobs (66%). If two-thirds of the American public have no appetite for such a deal, then it’s difficult to imagine how Boehner and Pelosi convince two-thirds of the uncommitted to go for fast-track authority on a proposed deal that’s being kept so secret that members of Congress have to go into a locked room to view it. Those who back fast-track for a deal like that will have to face those constituents who will wonder why they put free trade, or even just normal scrutiny, ahead of boosting jobs at home first. Don’t think that scenario isn’t playing out in their minds right now.
Still, George Will believes that opposition to TPA on the Right may be misguided:
Some Republicans resist granting fast-track authority, a traditional presidential prerogative, to a president who has so arrogantly disregarded limits on executive discretion. It is, however, unnecessary to defeat fast-track authority (thereby defeating freer trade) in order to restrain this rogue president. The 22nd Amendment guarantees his departure in 19 months. His lawlessness has prompted congressional resistance on multiplying fronts. The judiciary, too, has repeatedly rebuked him for illegal executive overreaches. So, it is neither necessary nor statesmanlike to injure the nation’s future in order to protest Obama’s past.
Rep. Paul Ryan campaigned hard to prevent a second Obama term, but he strongly favors TPA. He notes that if Obama’s negotiations about Iran’s nuclear program were being conducted under guarantees of congressional involvement similar to those contained in TPA, Congress would enjoy statutorily required briefings on the negotiations and access to the negotiating documents. Furthermore, any agreement with Iran would have to be made public for examination at least 60 days before Obama signed it, after which the agreement could not take effect unless Congress approves it.
Obama has all the friends in Congress he has earned and deserves, so even among Democrats this cohort is vanishingly small. By passing TPA, House Republicans can achieve a fine trifecta, demonstrating their ability to rise above their justifiable resentments, underscoring his dependence on them and on Congress, and illustrating his party’s dependence on factions inimical to economic vitality.
TPA doesn’t mean ratification; it just means that the ratification vote has to be up-or-down on the treaty as presented, rather than having the Senate renegotiate the treaty unilaterally. That’s why Congress has often given presidents this authority. However, past presidents have rarely if ever shown such contempt for Congressional authority and a determination to usurp legislative functions as Obama has. And some conservatives rightly wonder whether Republicans would sustain a majority to torpedo the TPP deal if it turns out to be as bad as some fear. That, combined by the strange secrecy surrounding the deal, is enough to support the skeptical view and demand a more open process, even if that does make the job tougher for Obama.
Update: Looks like TPA is in serious trouble, but so is the TAA thanks to unions not being mollified after all:
President Barack Obama’s push for a large-scale trade deal with the Pacific Rim is in serious jeopardy, as House Democratic opposition to his top legislative agenda is growing on Capitol Hill. …
Most pressing are concerns over TAA. The initiative is unpopular with Republicans, and aides in both parties estimate that only 50 to 100 GOP lawmakers will vote for it. And with unions actively lobbying against the bill, a senior House Democratic aide said it will be “a major problem” to wrangle “significant House Democratic support” for the measure.
The so-called rule vote is also critical, and is in danger, according to sources. That measure would allow the House to proceed to the larger trade package. A vote of that nature is usually carried by the majority party, but in a sign of how close it is, Wisconsin Rep. Ron Kind — a pro-trade Democrat — is urging his party to vote with the GOP.
Both the jobs assistance bill and the rule needs 218 votes to pass.
The uncertainty surrounding the TAA and fast track votes are becoming a serious problem for Obama. If TAA fails, the House will not take up Trade Promotion Authority, the key legislation that would give Obama fast-track authority to negotiate the sweeping Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement. Under that scenario both sides would have to regroup and figure out a way forward — or else the 12-nation trade deal could fall apart.
If they needed 82 votes and Democrats are bailing on it, then all of those votes would have to come from the GOP’s 100 uncommitted members — assuming the leaners don’t abandon ship. If the GOP had an 82% whip rate overall for Obama, that would be surprising, but among the uncommitted? That seems all but impossible. And note that Democrats will not go along at all on TPA without TAA, which looks almost certain to go down to defeat now. It’s getting ugly.