US House of Representatives Gears Up for Trade Skirmish

4 June 2015

The US House of Representatives resumed session this week, with lawmakers soon expected to take up controversial legislation that would grant President Barack Obama with renewed “fast track” trade powers.

The legislation, known as Trade Promotion Authority (TPA), was already approved in the Senate late last month by a 62-37 vote margin, after a bruising fight among lawmakers on issues ranging from the overall merits of international trade deals to how to deal with alleged currency manipulation by other countries. (See Bridges Weekly, 28 May 2015)

The draft TPA legislation sets out Washington’s principal negotiating objectives in trade deals, while allowing for completed agreements to be submitted to Congress for a straight up-or-down vote without the possibility of amendment. The previous version of TPA was enacted in 2002 and expired in 2007.

McCarthy confirms plans for June vote

House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, a Republican from the state of California, confirmed this week his plans to bring the TPA legislation to the floor for a vote in June. The majority leader, among other tasks, schedules legislation for floor consideration in the House.

“It’s my intent to get that done this month,” the lawmaker said, according to congressional newspaper The Hill. However, no formal date for the vote has been announced.

The upcoming fight in the House, however, is widely expected to be more difficult than in the Senate. To pass TPA in the House, 217 votes in favour are required. That chamber usually requires a 218 vote majority of its 435 members, but has two seats currently vacant.

Though Republicans hold 245 seats in the House compared to Democrats’ 188, winning over the necessary Democratic votes has become crucial for TPA proponents in recent weeks, as not all Republicans are expected to back the trade legislation. Some of the more conservative legislators have said that they are against giving any powers to Obama, making it unclear whether they will vote in the trade bill’s favour.

Paul Ryan, the Wisconsin Republican who chairs the House Ways and Means Committee, has attempted to dispel some of those concerns, telling fellow House Republicans in a recent “Dear Colleague” letter that free trade should be a uniting principle for the party, especially in comparison to the divisions among Democrats on the subject.  

“I’m proud that so many of you are ready to support TPA and all that it represents. I know some say you don’t trust the president. That’s exactly why we need this TPA,” Ryan said in the letter. “It provides unprecedented accountability and transparency. It empowers you, not him. And it gives us our best opportunity to advance fair, effective trade agreements over the next six years.”

The Wisconsin lawmaker was referring to the provision in TPA that would allow the legislation to be extended from three years – to mid-2018 – to six years upon the President’s request, so long as neither chamber of Congress passes a disapproval resolution. That would leave TPA in place until 2021, well into the next Administration, with Obama due to leave the White House in January 2017.

Ryan warns against different versions

Over the past few weeks, Ryan has also been pushing strongly against any amendments that would cause the version of TPA passed by the House to differ from that approved by the Senate. The fight over amendments in the Senate had threatened to derail the trade bill in that chamber, given the disagreements over how to address issues ranging from currency manipulation to the Export-Import Bank reauthorisation, among others.

Should the two versions of the legislation prove different, the House and Senate would then need to “conference” the bill, essentially negotiating final language that would then have to be voted upon once more by both chambers before going to the president’s desk – a scenario Ryan aims to avoid.

“If we go to conference, that would kill TPA,” Ryan said this week, according to comments reported by the New York Times.

The House is expected to vote on TPA and Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA) separately. The two bills were approved jointly in the Senate, partly as a way of bringing more Senate Democrats on board. The latter is a programme aimed at providing support to domestic workers displaced by trade.

Separating the bills in the House is reportedly aimed at making it easier to pass TPA, as many conservative Republicans are against the TAA scheme. However, both bills, if passed, would then be combined later on to ensure they match the Senate legislation.

Levin: TPP first, then TPA

Unlike in the Senate, where the chair and ranking member of the Finance Committee were able to reach a compromise to push the trade legislation through, Ryan does not have the support of his committee’s ranking member.

The top Democrat on the Ways and Means Committee, Sander Levin of Michigan, has instead been vocal in his opposition to advancing TPA without first seeing various concerns addressed in the ongoing Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade negotiations.

Those talks, which aim to establish a 12-country deal spanning various Pacific Rim countries, is said to be in the “endgame,” but has struggled to cross the finish line given the lack of clarity on TPA’s fate.

“The debate is not about being for TPP, or against TPP. I am for the right TPP and that is why I want Congress to be in a position to press US negotiators to secure a better outcome,” Levin said on Monday, outlining a series of TPP areas that he suggests are problematic in their current form.

The Michigan Democrat suggested that the “best course” for US lawmakers is not to approve fast track “until we know that TPP is on a better course,” warning that approval of Trade Promotion Authority now would mean a significant loss in congressional leverage.

Lobby groups square off

The impending House vote has sparked fierce competition among lobby groups in Washington, in an effort to influence undecided lawmakers in one direction or another. Reports have emerged of massive letter, phone, and e-mail campaigns, as well as protests by some groups in key congressional districts.

Labour unions such as the AFL-CIO, which is the dominant federation of US unions, have said that the trade deal could hurt American workers, lobbying intensely against both TPA and TPP.

Meanwhile, business organisations, such as the US Chamber of Commerce, have been among those pushing strongly for TPA approval, citing its importance for “levelling the playing field” for American businesses.

“By coming together to pass TPA, a bipartisan majority in the Senate clearly demonstrated confidence in the ability of American workers and farmers to compete and win in world markets – if the playing field is level,” said US Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Thomas Donohue last month, urging House lawmakers to do the same.

ICTSD reporting; “Obama’s Trade Deal Faces Bipartisan Peril in the House,” THE NEW YORK TIMES, 31 May 2015; “House trade vote will be tight, like in 2001,” POLITICO, 31 May 2015; “Obama Trade Bill Seen Gaining Enough Support for Final Passage,” BLOOMBERG, 28 May 2015; “McCarthy plans vote on trade ‘this month’,” THE HILL, 1 June 2015.

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