Tags: US | Congress | Trade

Obama, GOP Leaders Frantically Seek Dems' Help on Trade Bill

Wednesday, 10 Jun 2015 06:55 PM

WASHINGTON (AP) — The odd coalition of Republican congressional leaders and the Democratic White House twisted arms and offered enticements Wednesday in a hectic scramble to pass a major trade bill slated for a House vote at week's end.

But fierce opposition from unions, and a dispute over Medicare language in a related bill, threatened to block support from all but a smattering of Democrats.

Late Wednesday, President Barack Obama sent top aides to huddle with House Democratic leaders. They included White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough and U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman. McDonough told reporters it was "a great meeting," and exited the Capitol.

Later, Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., met privately, as they had done late Tuesday.

Obama seeks "fast track" negotiating authority, which the Senate endorsed last month. Previous presidents have enjoyed the authority, which lets them present Congress with proposed trade agreements that it could ratify or reject, but not change.

If he obtains it, Obama hopes to advance the long-negotiated Trans-Pacific Partnership with 11 other nations, including Japan and Vietnam.

Overwhelming numbers of House Democrats have opposed him from the start. They cite the claims of unions and liberals that free-trade agreements shift U.S. jobs overseas and help countries with poor environmental and workplace standards.

The latest problem is a provision in the Senate-passed bill now before the House. It would divert money earmarked for Medicare and use it to retrain workers displaced by trade agreements.

Democrats support the retraining, but they strenuously oppose tapping Medicare money to fund it.

House Republicans offered to put alternative funding sources in a related trade bill. But they are desperate to avoid changing even a comma in the fast-track bill, because that would send it back to the Senate and give opponents another chance to throttle it there.

That means the House would have to pass two bills — the fast track measure and the related bill — with different means of funding the retraining program. Obama and others would promise to enforce the non-Medicare funding option. But some House Democrats say they can't live on promises.

"They want to rely on Senate language that I don't understand," said Rep. G.K. Butterfield, D-N.C., head of the Congressional Black Caucus, which Obama has lobbied especially hard. If the Medicare language is in the legislation, he said, "it's unacceptable." Butterfield said those who vote for such language could be subject to attack ads accusing them of voting to trim Medicare, even if everyone agreed that another funding option would supersede it.

Given their problems among Democrats, pro-trade Republicans dangled inducements before undecided GOP colleagues.

Immigration hardliner Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, said he moved from leaning "no" to a solid "yes" after Ways and Means Committee Chairman Paul Ryan assured him that trade negotiations would include no changes to immigration policy. In a meeting and a long phone conversation with Ryan, King said, he explained, "these are my concerns, they accommodated my concerns, I'm going to vote yes."

"It will prohibit the negotiation of immigration provisions of any kind in any trade agreement that's negotiated" under fast track, King said.

Ryan, R-Wis., leads the House drive to pass the legislation.

Meanwhile, several House freshmen from Michigan were trumpeting a provision promising to crack down on countries that manipulate their currency to boost exports.

And lawmakers from steel-producing regions last week applauded the inclusion of provisions meant to help "level the playing field" for their favored home-state industry.

The AFL-CIO, a potent player in Democratic politics, urged lawmakers to reject the GOP-drafted plans for the retraining program, saying the money is insufficient. Many Republicans dislike the program, known as Trade Adjustment Assistance, or TAA, so numerous Democratic defections could scuttle the entire trade package.

Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., a supporter of the trade deal, said the dispute over the Medicare issue threatened to take the bill down even though most Democrats complaining were already leaning "no." Opponents raised loud concerns at a closed-door House Democratic Caucus meeting Wednesday morning, he said, and party leaders offered a wobbly explanation.

"This contretemps over the TAA has stirred up all the silt and so I don't know right now where we are," Connolly said.

If the unions prevail, it would mark a brutal setback for Obama, who says U.S. products must reach wider markets. But his chief allies on trade — that is, the Republican leaders who oppose him on so many other issues — said they still think they can eke out a win.

With House Republicans reportedly ready to provide 190 or more pro-trade votes, Obama's allies are seeking about 25 to 30 Democrats to reach the 218 total needed to assure passage.

"I don't think they're there yet," Rep. Mark Amodei, R-Nev., said after Republicans privately convened Wednesday. As the day wore on, advocates on both sides flooded the Capitol with calls, emails and statements, but it wasn't clear that votes were moving.

Rep. Mark Sanford, R-S.C., said he's inclined to support fast track mainly for the trade benefits to his home state. However, he said, "it's a tough vote for any conservative," including himself, because so many constituents deeply mistrust Obama and don't want him to receive any new authorities.

"The conservative base is ginned up about this," Sanford said, "and that's why it's going down to the wire."

___

Associated Press writers Jim Kuhnhenn and Josh Lederman contributed to this report.

© Copyright 2017 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

 
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