The Senate vote on Trade Promotion Authority will amount to a test of faith.
In what has become an increasingly complex process, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., last week outlined his plan to send three pieces of the four-piece trade package to President Barack Obama’s desk by the Independence Day recess. But for everything to go according to plan, a dozen or so pro-trade Democrats will have to trust that a vote for TPA will be followed by the approval of Trade Adjustment Assistance for workers displaced by trade, an African trade-preferences bill and a customs-enforcement bill.
"TAA will come second after TPA, but the votes will be there to pass it," McConnell asserted. "Reluctantly, not happily, but they will be there if it means getting something far more important accomplished for the American people.”
The fate of the package depends, in part, on Democrats believing those words.
“Here’s what it’s going to take,” McConnell said in a floor speech late on June 18. “One, working together toward the shared goal of a win for the American people. Two, trusting each other to get there.”
While many pro-trade Democrats last week were hesitant, Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., who last time — along with Finance Chairman Orrin G. Hatch of Utah — shepherded the bills through the Senate, said he thought Republicans had acted in good faith.
“I think everybody’s being straight with each other,” Wyden told reporters.
Wyden acknowledged the complexity of the process and the differences between the Senate and the House, where both have faced their own “procedural snafus” in the words of White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest.
Wyden said pro-trade Democrats had “almost nonstop” meetings and the consensus was clear — all four bills need to be approved.
The highest ranking Senate Democrat of the bunch, Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., echoed that “all the alphabet soup” — TPA/TAA/AGOA (the African Growth and Opportunity Act) and the non-acronymed customs bill — needed to happen.
Because of the Venn diagram of support for the separate measures, McConnell couldn’t package the bills together. The problem started with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and the bulk of her flock voting to torpedo TAA in an effort to slow or kill TPA.
The Republican leaders working with the White House have had to navigate fierce opposition from labor and most Democrats, Republicans who have no interest in granting Obama additional power, and another bloc of Republicans who oppose TAA on ideological grounds.
The Senate had its own “snafu,” with Democrats initially filibustering the trade package before cutting a deal on amendments. McConnell's hoping to avoid a repeat.
McConnell filed cloture on June 18 for TPA and AGOA. TAA would be added as an amendment to the latter.
A cloture vote on TPA will likely occur Tuesday, with final passage probably on Wednesday, presuming the pro-trade alliance sticks together. Cloture for AGOA/TAA would likely happen later on Wednesday, with final passage on Thursday.
TPA would then be completed and sent to the president and AGOA/TAA would go back to the House, where the hopes are that it receives sizable Democratic support because it’s not explicitly tied to TPA.
The customs bill, which faces disputes between the chambers over currency-manipulation language and anti-human trafficking language, among other provisions, will be hashed out in conference and won’t be completed prior to the recess. But, getting the other bills through the chamber would still be a large accomplishment for a body where bipartisan faith and trust have been an exceedingly rare commodity.
“That would be quite an achievement,” McConnell said in a floor speech on June 18. “All it’s going to take is some hard work and some faith in one another.”
All of this is built on “if.” Pro-trade Democrats don’t just have to trust McConnell. They also have to trust Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, and that the House will ultimately pass AGOA/TAA.
Pro-TPA Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., acknowledged as much on June 18, noting the House is where “the glitch could come,” and voiced her preference that TPA remain unsigned until the other bill advances. (Earnest said Obama would only support a legislative strategy that leads to both bills coming to his desk, but didn’t explicitly issue a veto threat on TPA.)
Hatch tried to give his own assurances the bills would pass, saying, “Everybody knows we can’t have TPA without TAA, so we’ve got to get it passed.”
Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., said she’d also “love to see this as an opportunity” to do something to prevent the Export-Import Bank from expiring by month’s end. But Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., who was optimistic that the trade package would pass, didn’t believe it would be possible to use it as leverage for Ex-Im prior to the expiration.
Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin, D-Md., also expressed a desire for all four bills to pass. Cardin showed last month that he has no problem voting against TPA if he doesn’t like the deal, having voted against the procedural motions because of the process prior to voting for final passage.
It’s not just Senate Democrats taking a leap of faith on TAA. Vulnerable Republicans — such as Sens. Rob Portman, R-Ohio; Patrick J. Toomey, R-Pa.; and Ron Johnson, R-Wis. — face tough re-election races in states with a strong union presence.
Portman early last week expressed optimism all four bills could be done. But if TPA becomes law and everything else flops, they’ll have less cover when they face the voters.
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