Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) has enlisted the aid of an anti-free-trade group in his quixotic campaign to provide protections for an Alabama sleeping bag maker as part of a looming trade bill.
In an eleventh-hour bid to add an earmark to the Generalized System of Preferences measure, Sessions has called in the American Manufacturing Trade Action Coalition — despite the fact that he has long been a supporter of free-trade deals that AMTAC has vehemently opposed.
Although Democratic and GOP aides said it appears unlikely Sessions will prevail, his maneuverings have caused heartburn for both Democratic and Republican leaders. The GSP bill has now become the linchpin to a deal leaders made with President Barack Obama to pass a trade assistance bill and three key trade agreements that have languished for years. Any changes to the GSP could endanger its passage and bring down the broader agreement.
With the Senate set to hold a key procedural vote on the GSP bill this evening, Sessions has set up a private briefing for Senate staffers with AMTAC Executive Director Auggie Tantillo that "will focus on the renewal of GSP and its implications for the sleeping bag textile industry and domestic jobs," according to an email invite sent to lawmakers' trade legislative aides.
The GSP bill governs how the U.S. treats imports from "least developed countries" such as Indonesia, Thailand, Uruguay and Bangladesh, and it is designed to help bolster trade with the most impoverished parts of the world.
Although the bill has been routinely reauthorized for years, it lapsed last year after Sessions blocked the measure because of language that allows for the import of cheap Bangladeshi sleeping bags.
That language, Sessions contends, has hurt Alabama-based sleeping bag maker Exxel Outdoors. Last year, despite pressure from his colleagues, the Senator refused to lift a hold on the bill unless an exception for Exxel Outdoors was added.
Imports of products covered under the law have dropped sharply since then, and supporters said tens of thousands of U.S. jobs are at stake if Congress does not quickly extend the law. Given the emphasis that voters have put on jobs over the past two years, Sessions' intransigence has rubbed some of his colleagues the wrong way.
Further complicating his efforts is the fact that the provision he wishes to include in the bill is defined under House rules — as well as the Senate GOP's internal rules — as an earmark. House rules explicitly bar consideration of legislation including earmarks — even those intended to close loopholes in current law.
Sessions has found himself increasingly isolated over the past six months, especially after leadership in both chambers cut a deal with the White House to attach the GSP to the Trade Adjustment Assistance reauthorization, which helps workers who have been adversely affected by international trade.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., carries a musket on stage as he speaks during the American Conservative Union's Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) at National Harbor, Md., on Thursday March 6, 2014.