The House on Wednesday passed a tariff reduction bill that Democrats and business groups said would support tens of thousands of jobs after Republican opposition to the measure wilted.
The Miscellaneous Tariff Bill, which comes up periodically, usually passes with almost no opposition. But it appeared headed for defeat after Republican leaders came out against it, saying that tariff relief for specific industries violated the GOP's self-imposed moratorium on special interest earmarks.
Democrats put Republicans on the spot by bringing the measure up under a procedure where a two-thirds majority was needed for passage. Unified GOP opposition would have defeated it.
After it appeared that enough Republicans were breaking ranks to pass the bill, dozens more changed their votes. The final tally was 378-43. The last time the bill came up, in 2006 when Republicans controlled the House, the vote in favor of passage was 412-2.
The bill, which now goes to the Senate, temporarily reduces or suspends tariffs on 639 items, mostly components that American manufacturers use in their production process.
Several of the GOP's key business allies, including the Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers, had strongly urged passage, and informed lawmakers that it would be considered a key vote in their appraisal of members of Congress.
The measure "is one of the most important short-term actions Congress can take to preserve and expand good American jobs, cut the costs of doing business in the United States and boost American manufacturing exports," NAM said in a letter to lawmakers. It cited a report that the bill would increase U.S. production by $4.6 billion and support almost 90,000 jobs.
Top Republicans on the Ways and Means Committee, which oversees trade policy, stressed the dilemma they were in. "I'm disappointed that I can't support this legislation," said Rep. Dave Camp of Michigan.
He claimed that House rules written by Democrats equated limited tariff benefits and earmarks, giving Republicans no choice but to vote against the bill.
"I would like to support this legislation but I cannot," said Rep. Kevin Brady of Texas, top Republican on the trade subcommittee. "It violates the letter and the spirit of the Republican moratorium on earmark requests."
Other top Republicans, including minority leader John Boehner of Ohio and Republican whip Eric Cantor of Virginia, also voted against it. Republicans have targeted earmarks, those special projects inserted into larger bills, in their campaign to cut waste and reduce the deficit.
Cantor's spokesman, Brad Dayspring, said Boehner and Cantor "were clear that this is not an easy decision for members." He said there were varying opinions on whether tariff breaks were earmarks, "which underscores the need for real earmark reform in the House."
Rep. Sander Levin, D-Mich., chairman of the committee, disputed the GOP interpretation, saying House rules distinguish between earmarks and limited tariff benefits where the government directs no money to private entities. "There is really no basis for lumping them together."
"This is a perfect example of what's wrong with the House of Representatives, where we put partisan politics ahead of the country's interest," said Rep. John Tanner, D-Tenn., head of the trade subcommittee. "We're not supposed to park our brain at the door because of some sort of partisan political advantage we think we might be able to get by hurting our own country."
The legislation includes 639 provisions, 318 requested by Republicans. While there are a few finished goods getting favored tariff treatment — music boxes, reusable grocery bags and golf umbrellas — almost all are chemicals and other items used in manufacturing processes in the chemical, pharmaceutical, textile, electronics and auto industries.
Those seeking reduced duties must show that they cost the government less than $500,000 and do not harm U.S. producers. The cost of the bill was estimated at about $300 million over five years.
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