So today the House of Representatives passed a bill giving President Obama Fast Track authority to negotiate the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal. That means Obama’s trade agenda could still survive, which caused a stampeded of commentators who had declared it dead and buried (in a “stinging” and “humiliating” defeat for Obama) to admit they might have rendered judgment too quickly. (Just kidding about that last part.)
The current situation is exceedingly complicated, and exceedingly …. strange. It has created a conundrum for Senate Democrats who want to pass Fast Track and TPP. And a number of Democratic aides to those Senators that I spoke with this afternoon say their bosses are unsure how to resolve it.
What has to happen now: the Senate has to pass the new House Fast Track bill. The Senate had previously passed a Fast Track bill that was attached to Trade Adjustment Assistance for workers (that had been necessary to get 14 pro-trade Senate Dems to support that original package). But after House GOP leaders split that into two votes, House Dems killed TAA as a back-door way of killing Fast Track. So House GOP leaders passed Fast Track alone and kicked it back to the Senate.
That has created a logic puzzle worthy of King Solomon. Here’s the problem: How can those same 14 pro-trade Senate Democrats vote for Fast Track on its own now, given that they can’t be sure that TAA will pass Congress after that? John Boehner and Mitch McConnell released a joint statement committing to pass both Fast Track and TAA (attached to another measure involving trade preferences that has broad support) out of both Houses. But there’s no way to be certain Republicans will deliver on TAA, because many of them don’t really care about worker assistance and they’d already have achieved the Fast Track they want.
The problem gets even more mind-bending when you add House Dems into the equation. The 14 pro-trade Senate Dems want an assurance that at the end of the process, TAA will pass the House; without that assurance, they won’t vote for Fast Track in the Senate. But House Dems won’t vote for TAA, because the uncertain fate of TAA is their only remaining leverage to get those Senate Dems to hold off on supporting Fast Track. So to get House Dems to pass TAA, Senate Dems will have to pass Fast Track first, because only then will House Dems support TAA (at that point, Fast Track would be on its way to the president, so there’d be no reason not to support TAA, which Democrats want, anyway).
But the very fact that House Dems won’t vote for TAA until Senate Dems have already passed Fast Track means Senate Dems can’t have any assurance that TAA will pass later, before they (Senate Dems) hold the Fast Track vote! See the difficulty here?
The solution would be to devise some kind of mechanism to assure the 14 pro-trade Senate Dems that TAA will pass the House later, if they back Fast Track. Discussions between Republicans and those Dems, led by Senator Wyden, are ongoing. But here’s the rub: Multiple Dem aides I spoke to today don’t know what adequate assurance would look like.
One possibility, floated by one aide, would be an assurance from GOP leaders that they will whip GOP votes in support of TAA, once Fast Track passes (but again, this is worker assistance). Another might be to hold the Senate vote on TAA before holding its vote on Fast Track (but again, in this scenario, Senate Dems would have to vote for Fast Track before House Dems vote for TAA).
Following this debate is a bit like being lost in a labyrinth that has no lighting of any kind. But then, the route to passage of major legislation is often byzantine and tortured. Those 14 Senate Dems, if they are going to vote for Fast Track, may well have to take a chance akin to selecting one way out of the labyrinth with no assurance that it will lead where they want it to. That uncertainty could end with them getting rolled completely.
UPDATE: Dem Rep. Keith Ellison, co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus and an opponent of Fast Track, responds with this statement:
“If President Obama signs Trade Promotion Authority before Trade Adjustment Assistance is passed by both the House of Representatives and the Senate, working Americans will have no help when their jobs are destroyed by the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Trade Adjustment Assistance will never pass in a Republican-controlled Congress after Trade Promotion Authority is signed into law.”