Democrats described the situation as "fluid," but for advocates of the package of trade bills backed by the president and a fragile bipartisan coalition of House members, it was more like "dire."
House Democrats emerged from a meeting with Obama administration leaders Thursday afternoon with more questions than answers on how members will proceed on Trade Promotion Authority — and few predictions of if or how the impasse would be broken.
"My colleagues are angry birds right now," said Rep. Sam Farr, D-Calif., who as of this morning says he will vote for TPA. Members don't seem to know exactly how trade votes will play out, but it's looking increasingly like one of two things will need to happen if TPA is going to pass: Either Democratic leaders get control of their caucus, or leaders force Republicans to broker a new deal.
Floor Rule 'Empowers' Democrats on Trade
As of now, the House is set to vote on a quirky sequence of trade bills beginning Thursday and going into Friday. That sequence was negotiated between Speaker John A. Boehner and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, and it was supposed to allay Democratic concerns about a Medicare offset in the TPA bill while also not requiring the Senate to vote on it again.
First, the House voted on a Trade Preferences Extension Act, which overwhelmingly passed with bipartisan support, 397-32. Then, later Thursday, the House is set to vote on the rule for consideration of the remaining trade legislation. Rule votes typically pass along party lines, though Republican opponents to the trade bill, if they were so moved, could sink TPA by voting down the rule.
On Friday, the House is supposed to vote on Trade Adjustment Assistance, and, if that passes, the House would then vote on TPA. Democrats were expected to largely carry TAA, which offers aide to workers who lose or leave their jobs as a result of international trade deals, while Republicans were supposed to largely carry TPA.
But an increasing number of Democrats now seem keen to the idea of killing TAA in an effort to stop TPA.
"The two are linked, so if TAA doesn't pass, it puts a hold on both," Ways and Means ranking member Sander M. Levin told reporters as he exited the Democratic Caucus meeting Thursday. Levin said he would be voting against TAA.
"The main issue is TPA," the Michigan Democrat said. "That's the main issue before us, and I think that remains to be the focus."
Normally, Democrats — particuarly Levin, who has sponsored TAA bills in the past — are more than happy to support assistance for workers displaced by trade deals. Except this time, TAA passage is largely tied to passage of TPA, which will set up fast-track rules for the Trans-Pacific Partnership and other future trade deals. With the vast majority of House Democrats opposing TPA, members see an opportunity to stop the trade deal dead in its tracks.
The Congressional Progressive Caucus is currently collecting Democratic signatures for a letter that opposes the Medicare cuts in TPA — cuts that would be undone by the TAA vote. But the CPC is painting the letter as a proxy for Democrats who would oppose TAA and dispute that the agreed-upon vote sequencing will really eradicate that offset. The latest count has 77 Democrat signatures.
If the CPC is correct in thinking that all of those Democrats would oppose TAA in an effort to stop TPA, which is certainly a question, that would put Republicans, many of who dismiss the TAA as little more than welfare, in the tough position of finding more than 100 vote for the bill on their side of the aisle.
Republicans will no doubt try to urge as many members as possible to not let Democrats derail the trade deal, with GOP leadership at this point employing the strategy of pinning blame on Pelosi, saying it was her suggestion for the new sequencing and the new offset and it was disingenuous to now say Democrats aren't satisfied.
Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva, D-Ariz., a co-chairman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, dismissed that characterization.
"Republicans were in the driver's seat when it came over from the Senate," he said. "Pelosi was very clear that Medicare was something our caucus wasn't going to support. The offer to do something about it came from [Republicans]. The fact that they haven't done anything about it, that they convoluted it, came up with gimmicks, refused to take amendments. ... They could have done a variety of things to make this less painful."
With Republicans grumbling and facing a possible revolt from some conservatives, pro-trade Democrats are stepping up their efforts to shore up support for TAA on their side of the aisle — all while they continue to search for more colleagues to support TPA.
Boehner 'Encouraged' TPA Will Pass
Rep. Kurt Schrader, D-Ore., the chairman of the fiscally conservative Blue Dog Coalition, suggested the members voting for TAA would not necessarily align with the members voting for TPA.
And Rep. Henry Cuellar emerged from Thursday's Democratic Caucus meeting with folded up pieces of paper in hand, saying he had lists of members he needs to work on for both TPA and TAA. "I may even be working Republicans," Cuellar said.
The moderate Texas Democrat, who has strong relationships with members in both parties, said he and his pro-trade Democratic colleagues were now whipping TAA just as hard as TPA. "So we got extra work now," he said.
Meanwhile, Rep. Ron Kind, D-Wis., the chairman of the largely pro-trade New Democrat Coalition who has been working very closely with the White House to whip the trade votes, suggested things were not nearly as dire as some might suggest, putting some blame on the media for sensationalizing Democratic discord.
Medicare Dispute Could Derail Friday Trade Votes The Democrats' Ace by Night, Pivotal Trade Vote by Day TPA Could Be Litmus Vote for Pelosi Successor See photos, follies, HOH Hits and Misses and more at Roll Call's new video site. Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call in your inbox or on your iPhone.