Ways and Means Chairman Paul D. Ryan has a solution to President Barack Obama's human-trafficking problem.
The problem: An anti-slavery provision added to the Senate-passed trade package would undermine one of Obama's top priorities — the Trans-Pacific Partnership. It would effectively bar Malaysia, which has a record as a human-trafficking hub, from joining the free-trade deal, and Malaysia is a key to the Obama administration's broader efforts in Asia to counter China.
So the Wisconsin Republican has a solution: Pass the Senate trade package as is, but amend the anti-slavery provision to a palatable form in a separate customs bill.
The Senate's trade bill "will move in the House as passed by the Senate," an aide to the Ways and Means Committee said.
"Our customs bill, which is already different than the Senate bill, will be modified to make the four changes outlined in the letter. And then we'll go to conference on customs after we pass our bill. The goal is to avoid a conference" on the broader trade package, the aide said.
The logic of the Ryan plan is simple: the vote on the Trade Promotion Authority bill will be tough enough as is; nobody wants to have to vote on it twice.
The existing TPA anti-slavery language prohibits the expedited consideration of trade deals with countries, such as Malaysia, that rank high in human trafficking by the State Department and requires those countries to implement certain recommendations.
A White House-backed compromise, initially crafted by Sens. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., and Ron Wyden, D-Ore., allows for a narrow and strict exception, but that never made it into the bill.
The White House would not say Wednesday whether Obama would sign the fast-track bill as is, but a senior administration official did say in a statement that the White House supported Ryan's plan and the compromise amendment.
"We welcome the language in the amendment put forth by Senators Menendez and Wyden on trafficking," the official said. "Their approach will further encourage countries to take concrete actions to end human trafficking, and we’re pleased to see that Chairman Ryan has agreed to take up their language in the House."
On May 22, the day the Senate voted on final passage of TPA, Ryan wrote a letter to the Senate’s bill managers, Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, R-Utah, and Wyden, stating his intention to add four amendments to the customs bill that included the compromise amendment.
Ryan also said he'd propose an amendment barring any trade deal from amending U.S. immigration laws, a nod to House tea party types who are distrustful of Obama, and another that strengthened enforcement against foreign producers using “unfair ” trade practices, which helped bring along Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, and the House Congressional Steel Caucus.
But the Ryan plan is not without its perils. For all of the votes that these amendments could attract, his decision to omit currency enforcement language could cost Democratic support.
Wyden, Hatch and Ryan have pledged to coordinate with leadership in both chambers to clear a customs package in June.
Of course, there's always the possibility that customs doesn't reach Obama's desk and TPA does, which would present the president with a dilemma.
There's also the possibility that the House ends up amending TPA if they need to do so to get the votes, which means it would come back to the Senate. After surviving a Democratic filibuster, a Rand Paul filibusterish speech, a drama over the Export-Import Bank and a 2-vote margin of error on cloture, there's no guarantees an amended Trade Promotion Authority bill would survive another senatorial firefight.
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