WASHINGTON (AP) – President Barack Obama and his legislative allies scrambled Monday for ways to revive his severely wounded trade agenda, although Democrats and Republicans alike said all options face serious hurdles.
Obama talked with House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio. And White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough spoke with Rep. Nancy Pelosi, the House Democratic leader whose rejection of Obama’s pleas capped Friday’s stunning setback delivered mainly by his own party.
But key lawmakers and aides said significant political and legislative challenges complicate the “many different options” cited Monday by House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif. He said he hopes a trade bill can be enacted by the end of summer.
The situation deeply frustrates Obama’s supporters on trade, because in some ways, success seems almost within reach.
The House on Friday approved, albeit narrowly, the key component of the president’s trade agenda: granting him “fast track” authority to negotiate agreements that Congress can reject or ratify, but not change.
And there’s reason to believe the House would approve the legislative package’s other main element — renewal of an aid program for workers displaced by international trade — if it were decided on a stand-alone, merit-based vote. Democrats overwhelmingly support it, and its cost is so low that numerous Republican see it as a reasonable price for the more important fast track.
But three legislative realities are thwarting any easy solution:
.The Senate combined the two elements into one bill, which it sent to the House after a bruising, lengthy battle.
.It turned out that House Democrats opposed fast track so strenuously, they were willing to sacrifice a favorite program — the displaced workers’ aid — to scuttle the whole package.
.The administration and others are loath to start over and give the Senate another crack at dragging out, and possibly killing, the entire trade package.
The original strategy assumed a left-right combination would ratify the Senate-passed legislation. Nearly all House Democrats would support the worker aid program, joined by enough Republicans for a majority, the thinking went. Then, a big majority of House Republicans, joined by just enough Democrats, would approve the fast track portion.
But Democrats, urged on by unions and Pelosi, foiled the plan Friday by killing the aid program, known as Trade Adjustment Assistance, or TAA. Even some colleagues called the tactic cynical, and Obama had specifically asked them not to do it.
All weekend, House Republicans gleefully distributed headlines about the Democrats’ rebuke of Obama.
The fact remains, however, that the failed fast track legislation was a top priority of Congress’ Republican leaders and crucial GOP allies, including the Chamber of Commerce and Business Roundtable.
Pro-trade lawmakers were weighing possible paths Monday. McCarthy said the best option was for Democrats to “come to their senses and be able to move TAA” by reversing Friday’s outcome. Several Democrats called that highly unlikely, noting that 144 House Democrats opposed the measure Friday.
Rep. Gerry Connolly, a Virginia Democrat who supports fast track and spoke with White House officials over the weekend, said, “I think it’s going to be a very heavy lift to try to change the outcome on TAA.”
Connolly said he worries that Republicans will manage to enact fast track without the displaced workers’ aid. “Why Democrats want to actually be the handmaiden of that, I do not know,” he said.
Another possibility is to have the House revise the Senate-passed bill and send it back to the Senate for a new round of debate and votes. But strategists in both parties said trade opponents would welcome another chance to suffocate fast track.
A third option calls for the House — which last week voted separately on fast track and TAA — to revisit the combined package with a single up-or-down vote.
No new Democrats are likely to vote for fast track. But the House voted 219-211 for the fast track component Friday, and some advocates hope the same margin might prevail on a revised approach.
GOP aides, however, say it’s highly likely that more than four Republicans would switch to “nay” to avoid endorsing TAA, which they consider a sop to unions. That would be enough to sink the legislation.
The congressional impasse jeopardizes hopes to complete the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership that the United States and 11 other nations have been negotiating for years.
Pro-trade advocates aren’t giving up. They note that, in one fashion or another, both the Senate and House have voted to embrace fast track authority for Obama.
“The differences are so small and the prize is so large that I think they’ll be some creative efforts at solving this,” said Jim Kessler, a pro-trade supporter and vice president of the Democratic-leaning group Third Way.