Supporters of pending free-trade agreements with Colombia, Panama and South Korea are holding out hope that Congress might pass the measures before adjourning for the August recess, even as Capitol Hill remains fixated on the looming Aug. 2 deadline when the government bumps against its debt limit.
Sens. Roy Blunt (Mo.) and Rob Portman (Ohio) told reporters Friday that they have satisfied President Barack Obama’s demand for assurance that the Senate would approve federal assistance for workers whose jobs disappear as a result of the trade deals. The two Republicans produced a letter with the names of a dozen GOP Senators who have committed to voting with the Democrats to kill any filibuster of such legislation.
Passage of the free-trade agreements has been stymied by a disagreement between Obama and Congressional Republicans over the appropriation of money to assist displaced workers, called Trade Adjustment Assistance.
But the White House confirmed that discussions with GOP leaders in the House and Senate continue and suggested that passage of the free-trade agreements before the August recess was still possible.
“The announcement by a number of Senate Republicans supporting passage of trade adjustment assistance is a welcome development in our discussions with Congress.
“What’s needed now is a commitment on specifics from the leadership of both Houses for a viable process for the passage of the three [free-trade agreements] and TAA,” an administration official told Roll Call in an email Friday afternoon.
The Obama administration previously requested that TAA be attached to one of the free-trade deals to ensure its approval, a procedure Senate Democrats have referred to as historically routine and noncontroversial.
But Senate Republicans argue the move would be unusual and set a bad precedent for future trade agreements, encouraging lawmakers to lard up such deals with extraneous amendments that would impede their approval.
Some Republicans also have opposed TAA on the grounds that it is too costly, particularly given Washington’s ongoing fiscal crisis. But Blunt and Portman believe they have engineered a compromise acceptable to all sides with their plan to clear TAA as a stand-alone bill while guaranteeing enough votes to overcome any GOP filibuster that might be lodged against it. The Senators said they had yet to hear back from the administration about their proposal.
“Instead of putting it together with the trade agreement, the idea was to say, ‘OK, this is the new requirement, the hurdle that we need to reach. We will separate it out and ensure that there is a pathway forward,’” Portman said. “That’s what we were asked to do. We have done that. As Sen. Blunt has indicated, we have done that and more.”
One possible outstanding concern on the part of the White House is that the Senate’s TAA legislation might be amended in such a way that it could sink the bill. Blunt and Portman did not dispute that possibility, but they noted that just because an amendment vote is held, it does not mean such legislation would achieve the votes needed to win attachment to the underlying TAA bill.
Blunt, citing comments made on the floor Thursday by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) regarding his commitment to moving the Colombia, Panama and South Korea deals through the Senate as quickly as possible, expressed confidence that this concern could be adequately addressed. McConnell had said he would like there to be an amendment process, but he indicated he would not expect any amendment to pass if “the administration can generate the votes it needs.”
“My sense on where Sen. McConnell is, is that the outcome here is increasingly certain,” Blunt said. “Surely there’s a way that [Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.)], Sen. McConnell and the White House can accommodate a process that produces a result the White House wants.”
The Republicans who have joined Blunt and Portman on TAA include Sens. John Boozman (Ark.), Scott Brown (Mass.), Dan Coats (Ind.), Thad Cochran (Miss.), Susan Collins (Maine), John Hoeven (N.D.), Johnny Isakson (Ga.), Mike Johanns (Neb.), Lisa Murkowski (Alaska) and Roger Wicker (Miss.).
Meanwhile, Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and House Ways and Means Chairman Dave Camp (R-Mich.) have told the Obama administration their plan was to similarly move TAA as stand-alone legislation, unattached to any of the three free-trade bills.
The business community, which praised the efforts of Blunt and Portman, has planned several lobbying activities this week — both far from the Beltway and inside the halls of Congress, although K Street sources said they do not expect the Obama administration to submit the free-trade pacts to Congress for approval until September.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce will continue a nationwide grass-roots lobbying tour today with Korean Ambassador Han Duk-soo with a stop in New Hampshire that includes a meeting with Rep. Charles Bass (R-N.H.) and a visit to the Pease International Tradeport. On Tuesday, the chamber delegation will head to Maine to meet with the state’s governor and state legislators and to tour a facility of retailer L.L.Bean.
Back in D.C., the chamber-run Latin America Trade Coalition and the U.S.-Korea FTA Business Coalition are planning a large-scale, bipartisan lobbying spree.
“We’re organizing a House-side door knock where we visit as many offices as possible,” said John Murphy, vice president of international affairs for the chamber.
“We are reaching out to Members of Congress in the states,” Murphy added. “It’s useful to get the business community there fired up and engaged so that they’re weighing in with their Members of Congress.
“While a deal hasn’t been reached on a clear path forward, it’s clear they’re making progress,” Murphy continued. “We’re heartened that it appears there have been regular talks all week long.”