Reuters | 11 June 2015
US House plans Friday vote on ‘fast track’ trade authority
WASHINGTON — Republicans aimed for a vote on Friday to hand President Barack Obama the coveted “fast-track” trade negotiating authority he needs to complete his signature Pacific trade pact after concessions to Democrats appeared to smooth the way forward.
In a memo to fellow Republicans, Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy said the House of Representatives would vote on Thursday on new funding for a program to help workers hurt by trade, before Friday’s debate on legislation to speed trade deals through Congress. That tackles a key Democratic concern.
The core legislation — fast-track trade authority for the president — is a central part of Obama’s strategic shift toward Asia. It would be accomplished in part through the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) that could boost global economic growth and U.S. exports, while setting common standards among emerging and rich nations in one of the world’s biggest trade deals.
The legislation would enhance Obama’s negotiating clout by letting Congress set negotiating objectives for trade deals such as the TPP, but preventing lawmakers from making changes to the final agreement.
The Republican-controlled Rules Committee agreed to hold separate votes on the worker aid program and fast-track authority on Friday, a strategy aimed at maximizing votes from both sides of the aisle. Failure of either vote would mean starting again in the House.
If the legislation passes, it would reassure Japan, the second-largest economy, after the United States, involved in the TPP talks. Japanese officials have said fast-track approval is necessary for the creation of the 12-nation TPP, which would encompass 40 percent of the world economy.
“Trade votes are never an easy lift around here, but Republicans are continuing to work, and we’re seeing some positive momentum in the right direction,” House Speaker John Boehner said after a closed-door meeting with fellow Republican lawmakers.
Exiting the meeting, Representative Paul Ryan, who chairs the powerful House tax committee, said he was “comfortable” that the measure had enough backing in the House, where Republicans have 246 seats to Democrats’ 188.
But some Republicans want concessions from the White House before pledging support for the bill.
“We hold some cards that we previously haven’t held with this president, and I think we ought to play them out,” said Republican Kevin Cramer, who wants to lift an oil export ban, a move that would benefit his state of North Dakota.
Some Democrats balked at language that would ensure trade agreements do not lead to changes in U.S. laws on immigration or climate change, addressing pet concerns of some Republicans.
The vote was scheduled after congressional aides said House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi and Boehner had found a way to pay for the $2.7 billion worker support program without cutting health care funding for seniors.
A congressional source, who asked not to be identified, said the new funding, worth $700 million, would come from cracking down on illegal tax activities. But because that change would be included in separate legislation, a Democratic aide said members worried it might not pass — a fear that is addressed by having lawmakers vote on that measure first.
Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell said the Senate would work “expeditiously” to approve the bill and send it to Obama.
Amid the infighting over the trade bills that could continue right up until Friday’s votes, many lawmakers were more focused on Thursday’s annual congressional baseball game, a charity fundraiser that will stop work in Congress that night.