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'Fast-Track' Trade Vote in Flux, but Backers Are Confident

From left, Tiberi, McMorris Rodgers, Salmon and Noem speak to reporters about trade last month. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

As the House prepares to take up "fast-track" legislation as early as next week, Republicans and Democrats are engaging in a vote-counting game that's making the Trade Promotion Authority package look like a bigger lift than it really is.  

The TPA vote, which would clear the way for a 12-nation Pacific trade deal — a key second-term goal for President Barack Obama — has been painted as a down-to-the-wire, every-vote-counts test of clout for the White House and for Republican leaders, who have forged an unusual alliance with the president in backing the deal. Politico recently dubbed TPA as “The Fight of Paul Ryan’s Career .” Some reports have said there could be as many as 75 Republicans  voting "no." A more recent story claimed there were “several dozen” Republicans who have come out against the TPA.  

But Capitol Hill insiders dismiss those whip counts as expectation games, meant to scare up as much Democratic support as possible, or perhaps to paint Majority Whip Steve Scalise as some sort of miracle worker.  

Back on Earth, lawmakers and aides with knowledge of the bill say the measure, which would provide for a framework for the eventual Pacific trade deal, is actually in good shape.  

While Ways and Means Subcommittee on Trade Chairman Pat Tiberi wouldn’t exactly give CQ Roll Call a hard and fast whip count, the Ohio Republican dismissed as "crazy" reports that 70 or 75 Republicans could vote against the TPA.  

“It’s certainly not 70,” Tiberi told CQ Roll Call.  

“But let me tell you,” he continued, never one to miss an opportunity to advocate for the trade-authority bill, “even if there were 70, that means, like, 180 [Republicans would vote for it].” (Technically, it means 175 Republicans would vote for it.)  

Still, Tiberi acknowledges Republicans will have to get some help if the TPA is going to pass. “We need Democrats,” he said.  

“We can’t pass it with only Republican support because it wouldn’t be smart for us to pass it with only Republican support,” Tiberi continued. “This has to be bipartisan.”  

Of course, despite Tiberi’s call for bipartisanship, it doesn’t really matter whether it’s Republicans or Democrats who get the bill over the finish line. It just has to get to 218 — or, with three House vacancies, 217, if every member miraculously voted. (For most votes this Congress, the magic number for a bill to pass has been closer to 212.)  

That means Democrats who back the deal don’t have to come up with that many votes anyway. According to Politico , there are already 18 House Democrats "leaning" toward support.  

As for the supposed strain of resistance among GOP lawmakers, much of that may be overstated.  

For one, GOP lawmakers have been careful with their language in discussing fast-track authority, often couching their positions with words like “leaning.”  

Opponents of fast track would be hard-pressed to find a dozen Republicans who have said definitively, in a statement or an op-ed, that they will vote against TPA. They certainly won’t find “several dozen.”  

That doesn’t mean Republicans are unified — it means many in the GOP conference are leaving their options open. Members are generally supportive of the trade legislation, and calculating how many Republicans vote "no" will likely be inextricably tied to how many Democrats vote "yes."  

It’s clear there won’t be a majority of Democrats — or even close to a majority of Democrats — supporting TPA. In November 2013, there were 151 House Democrats who signed a letter to Obama saying they would not support fast-track authority. But if Obama, who has been pushing for the legislation, steps up his whip operation, he could probably secure enough Democrats to get the bill passed with the current level of GOP support, aides told CQ Roll Call.  

And then there is the matter of Republicans warming to the bill. Raúl R. Labrador, R-Idaho, recently said conservatives in the House Freedom Caucus were looking at offering a TPA amendment that would assure them a yes-or-no vote on a final deal for the Trans-Pacific Partnership. And if they were assured of that final approval, Labrador said, “most of us here would vote for the TPA.”  

Under the current TPA bill, members would get just that sort of vote on any trade deal.  

As Tiberi said, there’s a lot of confusion about what the TPA would do, and when members finally understand it, he thinks many will come around.  

“A lot of misinformation on the far right,” Tiberi said, “and the left, and labor’s the best — they’re so good at misinformation and emotion.  

“And despite that,” he said, “I think we’re going to get there.”  

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