As the House inches closer to a vote on the long-awaited Trade Promotion Authority bill, conservatives who have traditionally been hard-liners in their opposition to deals with the White House are taking a softer approach.
While many on the right are still hedging their position on the TPA, there appears to be some conservative support for the trade process legislation. And with congressional Democrats increasingly taking a firmer line against the TPA, which would give expedited consideration to the Trans-Pacific Partnership under negotiation with 11 other countries, conservatives could be the key to getting the TPA over the finish line.
Huelskamp is one of the conservative Republicans who seems to be on board with TPA. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
At a monthly panel discussion for conservative lawmakers Wednesday, a cross-section of the House GOP's most needling members expressed views ranging from support to little more than light opposition to the TPA bill. Most Republicans in attendance — Justin Amash of Michigan, Thomas Massie of Kentucky, Raúl R. Labrador of Idaho, Jim Jordan of Ohio and Ken Buck of Colorado — all said they were "leaning no" on the fast-track authority. (Dave Brat of Virginia said he was "leaning heavy no.") But Cynthia M. Lummis of Wyoming said she was undecided, and Tim Huelskamp of Kansas, perhaps GOP leadership's biggest critic, even sounded supportive.
It's obviously not the best possible news for TPA proponents. But it's not exactly the worst case scenario either. Any sort of division among conservatives on the TPA is a positive sign for supporters, particularly when it's the White House pushing the legislation. (Of course, a joint op-ed from Ways and Means Chairman Paul D. Ryan, R-Wis., who was on the GOP ticket against President Barack Obama in 2012, and from conservative darling Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, goes a long way in wooing members.)
But the truth is many Republicans were already warm to the idea of trade deals. It's just the process that concerns them. As Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi has noted, the TPA would, for years, give the president up or down votes in Congress on other trade deals — without amendment votes. And ceding some element of oversight, even if it's just a modicum of oversight, even if the TPA includes numerous congressional oversight provisions, can still be terrifying for Congress — particularly Republicans who remain deeply skeptical of President Barack Obama after a string of unilateral actions they view as executive overreach.
As Buck said, recounting a conversation he had with a constituent, "If the president won't abide by the Constitution, what gives you any confidence that he'll abide by TPA?"
Republicans may support the TPP, but many of those same Republicans might not support fast-track authority. "Trade Promotion Authority is about process," Amash said, "it's not about the trade agreement itself."
It's just that TPA and TPP are quickly becoming inseparable. "TPA is process," Huelskamp said, "but clearly without TPA, you won't have TPP."
Huelskamp noted he likes the language currently under negotiation, and he sees plenty of upside to a trade deal. "I certainly represent an area that is willing and able to trade around the world," said Huelskamp, who represents an agriculture-heavy portion of Kansas.
"The safeguards are there. The protections are there," he said.
Still, there is still plenty of confusion among members about what exactly the TPA would do — let alone the confusion and consternation about what is in, and what will be in, the TPP.
Labrador said there are House Freedom Caucus members looking to introduce an amendment to change the process outlined in the TPA. He said the HFC's main concern with fast-track authority was that it would require "a really lengthy process" to deny any kind of trade agreement.
"You have to first go through the Ways and Means Committee, then you have to go through the Rules Committee, then you have to go through the House, then you have to go through the Finance Committee, then you have to go through the Senate with 60 votes," Labrador said.
"If the Ways and Means Committee decides that they like the trade agreement," Labrador continued, "I don't get a voice."
But, according to Brendan Buck, the communications director for the Ways and Means Committee, Labrador's mistaken that members wouldn't get to weigh in on a final deal. "This TPA was written to ensure Congress remains in control," Buck said. "Whether it's to turn off TPA or to pass a trade agreement, this TPA ensures every member has a vote."
For one, even if the Ways and Means Committee didn't turn off the TPA, the full House would still get to vote on the final trade agreement. And for another, if the Ways and Means Committee decided to turn off the fast-track authority, that decision would receive a vote in the House.
And that could be key in winning conservative support. As Labrador said, conservatives want a yes or no vote. And if they were assured of that final approval, "most of us here would vote for the TPA."
Whoa, if true.
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