House and Senate to vote on trade bill again -- without TAA; Update: New TPA bill passes 218-204

Sometimes the shortest distance between two points is, er … to keep doubling back and retracing your steps. At least that will be the argument on Capitol Hill today, along with a big trust us to progressives opposed to Barack Obama’s free-trade agreement in the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). The new plan from Congressional leaders is to pass the trade bill without the Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA) package that Democrats blocked to keep the overall bill from moving to Obama’s desk.

Get ready for some fireworks and fancy dancing this afternoon:

The bill on the House floor Thursday will be shorn of a provision to extend a program, known as Trade Adjustment Assistance, or TAA, to help workers whose jobs are lost because of production shifts overseas or import competition. Democrats have insisted on extending that program, which expires at the end of September, so moving the stand-alone fast-track bill could be a bit of a gamble.

But Republican leaders removed it this time because linking the two issues has created problems, as some House Democrats who oppose fast track voted against the workers assistance Friday—even though they support the program itself—to bring down the whole package.

They were put together in the first place because in the Senate, Democrats insisted on the workers assistance before they would support fast track. The Senate passed the bill, 62-37, on May 22.

Leaders in both the House and Senate have committed to a separate path forward for the assistance program, perhaps as part of another trade measure. House Speaker John Boehner (R., Ohio) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.) issued a statement Wednesday saying they were committed to getting both done.

So, let’s see if we have this straight. The bill didn’t pass in the first place because progressive Democrats knew that Republicans wouldn’t support TAA. That allowed some Democrats from swing districts to vote for Trade Promotion Authority (TPA) in the separate vote while keeping the bill from passing directly for Obama’s signature. The new approach will be to convince progressives to rely on Mitch McConnell and John Boehner to bring up TAA in a separate bill while enabling TPA for Obama.

Frankly, that sounds like an insult to their intelligence. It’s the worst of both worlds for progressives opposed to the trade bill. TPA got less than 30 votes the first time around as it barely passed 219-211. How many of those votes will remain when progressive Democrats know that it will enable fast-track, especially without any guarantees for the TAA? By the way, which Democratic leader will be the one to get on the floor and implore the rank and file to trust Boehner? Hopefully C-SPAN will capture that moment for eternity.

For that matter, will Senate Democrats really go along without TAA? The broader bill only had three votes above a potential filibuster. This plan requires a revote in the Senate, or a conference committee and a revote. Either way, it’s treacherous ground for progressives and for Obama, but much less so for Republicans. The TPA is hardly unprecedented, although it’s still a bad idea in this instance with a President who’s been so blatant about running roughshod over legislative jurisdiction. This could potentially set off a civil war within the Democratic Party at the worst possible moment for their legislative and presidential aspirations in 2016.

Addendum: The more one considers this approach, the more ridiculous it becomes, at least from the perspective of the progressives. They blocked TPA on the basis that they couldn’t trust Barack Obama in trade negotiations. Now they’re supposed to suddenly not just trust Obama on trade, but also Boehner and McConnell on worker assistance related to trade?

Update: The new TPA bill passed on almost the same split as last time, 218-204. The same 28 Democrats who voted for TPA the last time did so again, and no other Democrat switched their vote.