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Obama, leading Republicans mounting rescue effort on trade

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FILE – In this June 12, 2015 file photo, President Barack Obama and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of Calif. leave meeting with House Democrats on Capitol Hill in Washington to discuss the global trade talks. The president will meet with pro-trade Democrats from Senate and House, trying to salvage trade agenda. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
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WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama and top Republicans in Congress joined forces Wednesday on a quick, bipartisan rescue attempt for the administration’s trade agenda, left for dead in the House last week in a revolt carried out by Democrats and backed by organized labor.

Officials said the Republican-controlled House would vote Thursday on a stand-alone bill to give Obama the enhanced negotiating authority the administration seeks as part of an effort to complete a 12-nation trade deal with Pacific Rim countries.

In addition, House Speaker John Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell issued a firm pledge that the Republican-controlled Congress will pass legislation “in a timely manner” providing continued aid to workers who lose their jobs because of imports — a key demand of Democrats.

At the White House, Obama held a pair of meetings with pro-trade Democrats to try and firm up their support for the rescue strategy — sessions scheduled so hastily that they took place just before the annual White House picnic for lawmakers.

The fast-paced developments marked an episode unlike any other in a recent period of divided government, the president and his customary Republican rivals working in harness to thwart the wishes of members of Obama’s own party.

The trade measure would allow Congress to approve or reject any deal the administration negotiates, but not change it. Previous presidents have enjoyed the same authority, known as “fast track.”

A total of 28 Democrats voted with Republicans last week to grant Obama enhanced negotiating authority.

The entire bill derailed when the vast majority of Democrats voted against the package of aid for displaced workers in hopes of rejecting the entire trade package. Normally, the aid program is a Democratic priority and has little support among Republicans, but in this case, union-backed Democrats voted it down in hopes of scuttling the entire package.

By now separating the two portions of the legislation into separate bills, the GOP leadership and the White House are counting on strong Republican support to approve the trade negotiating authority, as was the case last week.

This time, they calculate that most Democrats will recognize that the rest of the trade agenda is headed to the White House, and will be willing to approve the aid for displaced workers that they voted down just last week.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California and other Democrats said they wanted Obama to sign both bills at once, and the statement from McConnell and Boehner appeared designed to reassure them that no matter what the timing, both measures would make it to his desk.

“We are committed to ensuring both … get votes in the House and Senate and are sent to the president for signature,” their statement said.

White House spokesman Josh Earnest earlier sought to create space for maneuvering on the precise timing of legislation, telling reporters, “The only legislative strategy that the president can support is one that will result in both pieces of legislation arriving at his desk.”

He added: “Now, there’s also this fundamental question … about whether or not they have to arrive at the same time, on the same day, as part of the same legislative vehicle or separately. That’s exactly what’s being discussed on Capitol Hill.”

Earnest also predicted that all of the 28 pro-trade House Democrats would be willing to follow the rescue strategy, as long as the aid package made it to the White House on its own.

One of the lawmakers, Rep. Gerald Connolly of Virginia, concurred.

“My sense is that there aren’t going to be a lot of cracks in the 28 who voted yes last time,” he said.

Under the strategy put together by Boehner and McConnell as well as the president, the aid for displaced workers would clear Congress separately from the trade negotiating legislation, as part of a bill renewing rules for commerce with African countries and Caribbean Basin nations.

Boehner and McConnell hope to complete passage of the legislation dealing with negotiating authority before lawmakers begin a July 4 vacation at the end of next week, intending to blunt any attempt by opponents to administer a final defeat to the legislation.

The second measure could take longer, since lawmakers for the two houses will have to work out anticipated differences in the two versions.

There was little sign of retreat within organized labor, which argues that international trade deals inevitably cause the loss of U.S. jobs.

AFL-CIO legislative director Bill Samuel said the strategy contemplated by Republican leaders and the White House could leave the worker assistance package languishing in either the Senate or the House, requiring GOP leaders to somehow guarantee it would pass.

“It still presents the same problem: Trust us, and we will get it done,” he said.

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