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'Fast-Track' Trade Fight Nears Crucial House Vote

Reps. Tom Price and Chris Van Hollen, the chairman and ranking member of the House Budget Committee, the first panel to preside over an OCO fight in 2015. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Backers of "fast-track" legislation in both parties have enough confidence in Trade Promotion Authority's likelihood of passing the House to talk about a possible vote later this week.  

But enough uncertainty remains that Republican leaders haven't yet added the bill — which would clear the way for President Barack Obama to move forward on a 12-nation Pacific trade deal — to this week's floor schedule. The legislation, supported by Obama, much of the House Republican Conference and about 19 pro-trade Democrats, doesn't have much of a margin of error when it comes to the whip count — and GOP leaders, who've been burned before , are determined to get this one right. Republican and Democratic leaders are also still negotiating a different offset for the related Trade Adjustment Assistance bill, which progressives could try to sink if the current proposed cuts to Medicare aren't addressed.  

Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy told lawmakers last week the House would be in session this Friday, possibly into the afternoon, and to "adjust travel plans accordingly."  

Whether the trade legislation makes it to the floor or not, the House is expected to take up the fiscal 2016 defense appropriations bill as well as the authorization bill for intelligence activities.  

Both measures are surer bets than TPA, but still likely to cause Republican leaders plenty of headaches.  

Each bill currently relies on the Overseas Contingency Operations account to fund specific initiatives — a funding mechanism that's helpful for Republican appropriators and authorizers who want to boost spending without running afoul of sequester-level caps. The OCO is also seen as a way to placate defense hawks who say the Pentagon needs more cash to fight the war on terror.  

But Democrats decry the maneuver as a "gimmick" that won't actually meet real needs and argue if Republicans are stymied by sequestration, they should just agree to come to the table and negotiate new topline numbers. Meanwhile, many conservative hard-liners oppose the using OCO because they see the account as a wasteful "slush fund."  

The heated debate over the OCO has already come up in three House floor debates. In each case, Republican leaders got what they wanted, but the battles were drawn-out and divisive.  

The OCO almost derailed the Republicans' fiscal 2016 budget blueprint, with leaders forced to employ a rare procedural gambit called "Queen of the Hill," wherein multiple versions of the budget were put up for a vote and the biggest vote-earner was the one sent to the Senate.  

The final vote on the Military Construction-Veterans Affairs appropriations bill was postponed when suddenly leadership was concerned a bipartisan package of amendments barring the ability to spend money through the OCO account would actually pass, threatening the underlying legislation.  

And while the major floor drama  during consideration of the National Defense Authorization Act related to immigration language, Democrats were still irked by the use of the OCO in that bill, too.  

There's no reason to think Democrats won't repurpose the same talking points this week, during House consideration of the defense appropriations measure and intelligence authorization act.  

House Intelligence ranking member Adam B. Schiff, D-Calif., during the panel markup of his legislation, said, "We can't have defense-related items enjoying OCO relief when domestic programs — even those that contribute to our national and homeland security, let alone our children's education and other social services — suffer arbitrary and harmful cuts."  

House Defense Appropriations ranking member Peter J. Visclosky, D-Ind., in his opening statement preceding his bill's committee markup, said, "increasing OCO funding is merely a fleeting salve to the sequester caps for one agency and does not allow the Department of Defense to properly plan and budget for the future.  

"Further," Visclosky continued, "if the president is true to his veto threat, then we are playing a serious game of brinksmanship with DOD and the rest of the federal government."  

Obama has said he'll veto any appropriations bill that adheres to sequester numbers, and in the Senate, Democrats have put Republicans on notice they'll vote against motions to proceed to spending measures until the GOP agree to permanently break the caps.  

House Republicans, who boast they're moving the appropriations progress along in their chamber the earliest since 1974, are already going on the offensive against Senate and White House threats to reject the GOP spending plans.  

Last week, the press office of Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, posted a blog w ith the headline, "Democrats Plan to Shut Down The Federal Government."  

Related: ‘Fast-Track’ Trade Vote in Flux, but Backers Are Confident Pelosi: It’s Boehner’s Job to Pass Trade Promotion Authority (Video) (Updated) 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.