House approves new fast-track trade measure
House Speaker John A. Boehner, above, overcomes skepticism from some in his GOP majority reluctant to give President Obama broader powers.
WASHINGTON — President Obama’s ambitious trade agenda was resurrected Thursday as the Republican-led House overcame mostly Democratic opposition to approve a fasttrack authority bill that the administration says it needs to negotiate a sweeping 12nation Pacific trade deal.
The measure, accepted on a narrow vote of 218-208, now goes to the Senate, where it will need to muster enough Democratic votes to win passage and be sent to the president’s desk.
The effort comes nearly a week after a previous attempt to approve fast-track authority was blocked by House Democrats concerned that the final trade deal would not do enough to protect American workers.
The White House believes that the trade deal is vital to keeping the U.S. competitive and boosting economic growth. But the prolonged debate has driven a wedge between traditional Democratic allies, forcing Obama to strike an alliance with Republicans and business leaders against organized labor and many leaders in his own party.
Only 28 House Democrats voted for the bill Thursday.
House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) had to overcome skepticism from some in his Republican majority who were reluctant to give Obama broader powers or help the president score a political achievement.
“Republicans are working with Democrats in the House and Senate to pass trade promotion authority,” Boehner said Thursday. “Getting this work done is critical to expanding opportunities for American workers and American-made goods.”
Though the House had narrowly approved a similar fast-track bill last week, it stalled when a companion measure providing worker-retraining funds was defeated.
The fast-track bill, known as Trade Promotion Authority, would guarantee that future trade deals, including the emerging TransPacific Partnership, would receive only a yes-or-no vote by Congress, with no amendments. The same powers have been granted to past presidents and the authority would extend for more than five years into the next administration.
The fast-track bill moves next to the Senate, which also had passed a similar measure that included the retraining funding.
Senate votes are expected next week, but final passage remains in flux be- cause there are still disputes over the future of the retraining funds, known as Trade Adjustment Assistance, which would give help to American workers who lose their jobs to overseas trade. Funding on that program expires Sept. 30.
Under the new plan, the Senate will consider the House-passed fast-track bill and, if approved, send it to Obama for his signature. Separately, the Senate will vote on the retraining assistance measure, which would be added to a related trade bill that gives trade preferences to sub-Saharan African nations. Then that legislation would need to be approved by the House.
Obama prefers that both bills arrive at the same time, but the White House has resisted saying he would not sign the fast-track Trade Promotion Authority bill into law without the worker retraining measure. Democrats are skeptical.
“I don’t see a path right now” for Trade Adjustment Assistance, warned Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (DSan Francisco), who scuttled the trade package last week in a stunning rebuke to Obama’s agenda.
Of the 14 Democratic senators who have supported fast-track, many were cool to the new strategy, despite fielding phone calls from the president and attending a meeting at the White House with Obama this week.
Members of the Congressional Black Caucus warned against using the Africa trade bill to carry the worker assistance program that most Republicans reject as government waste. They fear both could be rejected. Rep. Karen Bass (D-Los Angeles) was among the CBC leaders opposing the effort.
Other Democrats predicted that neither the Congress nor the White House would allow the retraining funds to be left behind.
DEMONSTRATORS on Capitol Hill protest legislation to give President Obama fast-track authority the administration says he needs to negotiate trade deals.