House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi leaves after a news conference on Capitol Hill on  June 4.  (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

Trade promotion authority (TPA) lies in limbo in Congress.  The Senate has already voted to give the president so-called fast-track authority to negotiate the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), packaging GOP support for trade liberalization with Democratic support for trade adjustment assistance (TAA) for displaced workers. Matching fast-track authority with compensation for the losers from free trade reflects a decades-old bargain that has propelled trade deals through Congress despite partisan differences over free trade.

But the legislative process has ground to a halt in the House. Because most Republicans are loath  to vote for TAA and most Democrats won’t support TPA, GOP leaders had designed a bifurcated vote on the two measures. TAA and TPA would require separate passage before the two trade bills could be knit back together again, thereby matching the Senate-passed version. When Democrats nearly voted en masse against TAA last week, they ripped up the TPA-TAA package deal.

Can the trade bargain be stitched back together? Administration officials declared that last week’s developments were simply a “another procedural snafu.” But observers have pinpointed the president’s predicament for securing congressional approval of fast-track authority: Either dozens of Democrats have to change their votes on TAA or Republican have to swallow hard to vote in some fashion for TAA.  

Is there a procedural solution to this impasse? House leaders on Tuesday will seek an additional six weeks to bring up the measure again. One possibility is for the House to reconsider the TAA measure in a straight up or down vote. An alternative parliamentary fix would involve combining TAA and TPA into a single vote. The House Rules Committee could report a “self-executing” rule to govern consideration of the trade measures. Such a rule would stipulate that upon passage of TPA, TAA would be “deemed” to have passed, as well, without a separate vote on TAA.

Regardless of the exact procedural sequence, a brief look at the changing partisan dynamics on fast-track and trade assistance suggests a rocky road for any path forward.

First, conflict in recent years over the TPA-TAA log-roll has been growing. One measure of that disagreement can be seen in the figure below that shows a reduction in the length of previous TAA reauthorizations. Whereas TAA was created as a “permanent” authorization in 1962 (not shown in the chart), TAA was most recently reauthorized in 2011 for less than three years. The shorter shelf life of recent TAA extensions no doubt in part reflects this increased conflict over the programs, complicating efforts to resolve the current impasse.


Data source: Hornbeck, “Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA) and Its
Role in U.S. Trade Policy,” CRS.

 

Second, a quick comparison of GOP votes on TAA in recent years suggests that securing significantly more Republican votes for TAA would be a heavy lift for GOP leaders. Indeed, one House Republican noted this week that “… a lot of our members actually feel this is the best chance ever to get rid of TAA.” GOP support for TAA has been declining even in the short period since the programs were last reauthorized in 2011. That year, separate votes were taken to implement three trade agreements (South Korea, Panama and Columbia) and to pass TAA. Every Democrat voted for TAA, but a bare majority of Republicans voted against it (118-122). In fact, as Galantucci’s (gated) study of Senate TAA votes in 2011 found, the most ardently free trade- oriented Republicans were significantly less likely to support TAA.

Compare that GOP division to last week’s vote, when Republicans split 86-158 against TAA. Granted, Republicans might have piled on to oppose TAA once they saw that Democrats had failed to keep their end of the trade bargain. The move by the conservative Club for Growth to score TAA as a “no” vote (deeming it “wasteful welfare) might also have driven down GOP support for TAA. Either way, growing ideological differences between the parties appear to have spilled over to measures that offer worker retraining for those losing jobs on account of trade liberalization.

Third, any changes to TAA, TPA or TPP risks upsetting what appears to be a fragile GOP majority for TPA (and would force the Senate to revisit its careful compromise over the trade measures). Despite the blame heaped on House Democrats for unraveling the trade log-roll, Republican support for free trade also seems tenuous. For starters, Republicans needed Democratic votes to pass the “rule” that set the terms of debate for TAA and TPA, even though votes on rules are typically party-line affairs. Moreover, 50 Republicans voted against both TAA and TPA, requiring Republicans to again turn to Democrats to put TPA over the top. Significant GOP opposition to both measures complicates any parliamentary fix that would deem TAA passed.   And dozens of Republicans might ask: Why swallow TAA to give a free trade win to a Democratic president?

Fourth, a significant increase in the number of Democratic votes for TAA seems unlikely, given deepening partisan divides over the underlying TPP pact under negotiation. Just 27 Democrats voted for both TAA and TPA last week, suggesting the shallow reservoir of free trade supporters on which to build more votes for TAA.

Ultimately, Democrats seem especially unlikely to change their votes. The AFL-CIO is taking out “thank you” ads for Democrats who sided with labor against TAA, reinforcing and rewarding House Democrats’ votes against the president’s trade agenda. Moreover, appeals from President Obama are unlikely to make a difference. As Obama’s former Hill liaison, Phil Schiliro, observed last week, Democratic majorities have concluded that few of their constituencies benefit from free trade deals. “I don’t think it’s a lack of loyalty to the president,” Schiliro said. “If your friends genuinely have a different view, that’s the hardest thing to square.”  

Perhaps TAA is just no longer sufficient to buy the votes of liberal Democrats whose constituents are harmed by free trade. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) inferred as much when she closed debate on TAA by naming a new price for Democratic votes for TPA: long-term funding for federal highway programs.  The suggestion seemed incongruous at the time. But Pelosi’s pivot is potentially suggestive of a turning point in how trade deals are pursued and achieved.