Updated: 11:50 a.m. | Speaker John A. Boehner and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi appeared late Wednesday night to have cleared an impasse preventing the House from moving forward on a package of trade bills and giving President Barack Obama long-sought Trade Promotion Authority.
But on Thursday morning, it was far from certain whether the deal will work, and not immediately clear to what extent Pelosi gave the green light to proceed. Senior Republicans and GOP leadership aides say they've found a procedural framework for bringing the bills to the floor that will allow Obama to negotiate a 12-nation Pacific trade deal, and satisfy Democrats who didn't want to go on record voting for language calling for Trade Adjustment Assistance programs to be paid for by sequester cuts to Medicare (even if the offset was essentially canceled out in another bill).
"We are proceeding and this additional change [regarding] process should alleviate any and all remaining substantive or procedural concerns from the Dems," a GOP leadership aide told CQ Roll Call in an email early Thursday morning. "To be clear, the process announced last night ... was Leader Pelosi's idea."
"Republicans have addressed both the substantive and procedural concerns raised by Nancy Pelosi and House Democrats," Boehner spokesman Kevin Smith weighed in. "It's time for the president and his party to step up and do the right thing for the country."
Floor Rule 'Empowers' Democrats on Trade
A source close to the Congressional Progressive Caucus countered, saying leaders of the group would continue to whip against the TAA bill, which would include changes to Medicare dialysis payments and child tax credit changes for expatriates.
"Any bill that includes Medicare cuts when passed — which will happen, even with this new proposed procedural jujitsu — is unacceptable to our members," the source explained.
A senior House Democratic aide familiar with the state of play also disputed the characterization that this was a panacea for members of the minority party, and the insinuation that Pelosi was completely satisfied with the arrangement.
"It is factually inaccurate to say that House Republicans have addressed all Democratic concerns," said the aide. "Pelosi pointed out to Boehner earlier this week ... that the lack of the public employee language in the TAA bill was a major concern and that has not been addressed.
"Labor unions are whipping members into a frenzy over the issue and this is very likely to be a major problem in getting significant House Democratic support for TAA," the aide continued. "It's becoming increasingly clear that labor is out the kill the whole package at all costs regardless if that means we went up with TPA and no TAA."
House Democrats plan to huddle in a closed-door meeting at noon to discuss the issue further, with Labor Secretary Tom Perez and White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough invited to speak to members. The news has prompted CPC members to demand an invitation also be extended to AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, something of a controversial figure among Democrats at this point for his group's targeted attacks on pro-trade lawmakers and decision to freeze funds to all congressional campaign accounts until the TPA outcome is known.
An email from CPC leadership obtained by CQ Roll Call said that members were encouraged to call House Democratic Caucus Chairman Xavier Becerra, D-Calif., and ask him to include Trumka in the list of speakers at the noon meeting. Becerra's office couldn't comment on how many calls he'd received, if any, but sources confirmed Trumka has been invited and will be attending to offer a counterpoint to the White House officials advocating for passage of TPA.
Boehner said at his press conference the concern about public employees not included in the TAA bill was "a red herring being raised by some of her colleagues."
"We have addressed her concerns," Boehner said.
Boehner 'Encouraged' TPA Will Pass
The current game plan would go like this:
The House will vote Thursday on a bill to extend an existing African trade agreement and establish broad trade preferences — and that bill includes a new offset for TAA achieved through "strengthening Federal tax compliance laws."
Then, the House will work Friday through the trickiest part of the equation: getting enough Democrats to vote for TAA now that one might argue the unsavory offset has been dealt with elsewhere — a tough sell to many Democrats.
The original plan had been to "divide the question" and hold two votes: one on TPA and one on TAA. If TAA failed, so would TPA.
In the new plan, there would be three votes: TPA, TAA minus Medicare offset language, and the Medicare offset language. Language in the rule, which must pass in order to proceed to the bills directly, would state that once the rule is passed, the Medicare offset language would also be considered passed, canceling out the need to hold an actual vote on the Medicare language. Democrats always vote against Republican rules so they'll have their chance to vote against the Medicare language, in effect, by voting "no" on the rule, and then vote "yes" on TAA sans Medicare cuts.
Then, assuming everything goes smoothly, the House would vote to go to conference with the Senate on the bill to bolster U.S. Customs and Border Protection in relation to trade.
Republicans say it will give Democrats the opportunity to go on record opposing the Medicare cuts without having to vote against TAA, which puts the bill at risk since conventional wisdom has always held Democrats would need to shore up the bulk of the support for that measure. But, since the Medicare offset language would go back into TAA upon the House completing all legislative business on trade, the House and Senate would not have to volley TAA back and forth: The president could sign it immediately.
An aide for a member of the Progressive Caucus was unimpressed.
"The success of this strategy hinges on American seniors understanding parliamentary procedure and [Senate Majority Leader Mitch] McConnell being trustworthy," he said. "This literally changes nothing."
And at her weekly press conference Thursday morning, Pelosi signaled she probably couldn't keep Democrats from sinking TAA if they wanted to. She is still waiting to make her own position public and Democratic leadership is not whipping on any portion of the trade package.
Whether Democrats would and could vote to take down TAA as a way to thwart passage of TPP, Pelosi was cryptic, yet clear: "Yes," she said, "that opportunity does exist."
Matt Fuller contributed to this report.