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Obama's Trade Plan Needs Almost 100 Votes to Pass US House

Friday, 12 June 2015 07:26 PM

Supporters of President Barack Obama’s fast-track trade proposal need almost 100 more votes to save it in a new House vote next week, after his fellow Democrats scuttled final action on the plan Friday.

White House press secretary Josh Earnest called the embarrassing defeat a "procedural snafu" and said he was optimistic that Democrats ultimately would help send the fast- track trade negotiating measure to Obama’s desk.

Key Democratic opponents including House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, who criticized the trade plan in a dramatic floor speech, signaled that prospects for passage will increase if Republicans act on other Democratic priorities, such as a highway funding bill. A new House vote on trade will come as soon as Tuesday.

"We look forward to working in a bipartisan way for a trade promotion authority bill that has better transparency, more consultation with Congress and stronger protections for congressional priorities," she said in a letter to colleagues on Friday after the votes.

Obama has lobbied for months for the trade measure, which would let him submit agreements to Congress for an expedited, up-or-down vote without amendments. He contends it is needed to help complete a 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership and other agreements that would keep the U.S. competitive with overseas rivals.

Republicans provided most of his support in Friday’s votes, in which defeat of a displaced-worker aid plan blocked the fast- track trade bill from being sent to the president.

Obama Statement

Obama blamed Republicans and Democrats in a statement that said, "inaction will directly hurt about 100,000 workers and their communities if those members of Congress don’t reconsider."

Democrats, who say previous free-trade agreements have cost U.S. jobs, kept the fast-track bill from going to Obama Friday by helping defeat, 126-302, a measure providing aid to displaced workers. Although the House passed the fast-track bill 219-211, procedures adopted for the vote required both parts of the package to be passed.

That means trade bill backers must gain support from almost 100 more House members to pass the displaced worker bill before the trade package can go to Obama’s desk.

Trade bill opponent Sander Levin of Michigan, the top Democrat on the House Ways and Means Committee, said plans for a new vote give Democrats an opportunity for a "substantive" conversation on how to shape the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership.

Changing Vote

If talks were successful, Levin said, he could change his vote on the aid to workers who lose their jobs because of trade deals. His spokeswoman, Caroline Behringer, said he is leaving Washington for the weekend and has no meetings planned with members of the Obama administration.

Earnest said the strategy by House Democrats to block fast-track didn’t work and that they will relent to support the worker aid measure, something Democrats have almost unanimously backed in the past.

Obama made a rare visit to Capitol Hill to seek House Democrats’ support in a private meeting. Pelosi, who had worked out the voting procedure with House Speaker John Boehner, accompanied the president to the meeting.

Only 40 Democrats voted for the worker aid bill, while 144 voted no. After months of keeping her views secret, Pelosi announced her opposition to the trade bills in a dramatic speech just before the vote.

"Our people would rather have a job than trade assistance," said Pelosi, a California Democrat. "We have to slow down" on the fast-track bill, she said. "Whatever the deal is with other countries, we want a better deal for America’s workers."

Climate Change

While praising Obama’s efforts to promote trade, she said the plan also fell short by preventing U.S. trade officials from negotiating measures to prevent climate change.

Earnest declined to criticize Pelosi.

"The president has enjoyed a very long, warm and productive relationship" with Pelosi, he said, citing her work to usher through Obama priorities including the economic stimulus, Dodd-Frank financial regulations and the Affordable Care Act.

House Rules Committee Chairman Pete Sessions of Texas said the vote on the fast-track measure shows it will pass one way or another, and that Democrats should realize they need to save the worker aid program they have supported in the past.

"The president has some work yet to do with his party; this isn’t over yet," Ways and Means Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, a Wisconsin Republican, said at a news conference after the vote.

'It’s Unfathomable'

After the vote, New York Democrat Steve Israel, a trade bill supporter, said his party has an obligation to pass the worker aid plan.

"It’s unfathomable to me that we end up in a place where a trade bill passed" without it, Israel said. "This has not been among our finest two hours."

In an unusual alliance, most Republicans were backing Obama. Many Democrats remain stung by the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement, which labor unions blame for a decline in U.S. manufacturing jobs.

The bill, H.R. 1314, would give Obama and the next president expedited trade negotiating authority for six years. The Senate passed it in May.

Blow for Obama

The defeat is a blow for Obama because trade was an area where he had seen opportunity for support from Republicans, who this year took control of the Senate as well as the House where they’d already had a majority. Obama had spoken with optimism as the congressional session began about trade being a bright spot where he and Republicans agreed something had to be done.

Obama invested time and his political capital in making trade his top domestic priority this year. He has said that without fast-track authority, reaching trade agreements with Pacific or European nations will be unlikely.

The Friday morning trip to Capitol Hill -- his first since 2013 for a policy matter -- was an indication of how personal the administration lobbying effort was to the the president.

The House on Friday also passed a customs measure, H.R. 644, setting up a conference with the Senate on the issue of using tariffs to punish currency manipulators.

Workers' Aid

The worker assistance program typically is supported by Democrats and opposed by most Republicans. Some Democrats decided to defeat it because that would stop the vote on Obama’s trade negotiating authority. The move would be worth it even though $450 million in aid for workers would be lost, some lawmakers said.

"There are plenty of those who feel that’s not such a bad price to pay for saving American jobs," Representative Jan Schakowsky, an Illinois Democrat, said Thursday.

Republicans also confronted opposition within their ranks to the trade package from members who wouldn’t approve anything strengthening Obama’s hand in international negotiations.

"As a Republican, free trade would be a great concept, but the folks back home have absolutely no faith and confidence in this president," Representative Blake Farenthold of Texas told reporters Thursday.

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Supporters of President Barack Obama’s fast-track trade proposal need almost 100 more votes to save it in a new House vote next week, after his fellow Democrats scuttled final action on the plan Friday.
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Friday, 12 June 2015 07:26 PM
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