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The GOP controls Congress. So why are we blaming Democrats for a trade bill's failure?

Republicans like Speaker John Boehner are in the majority in the House of Representatives.
Republicans like Speaker John Boehner are in the majority in the House of Representatives.
Mark Wilson/Getty Images

In the wake of Friday's failure of a key part of Barack Obama's trade agenda, most people are blaming House Democrats, who voted 144 to 40 against Trade Adjustment Assistance. TAA, which helps workers who lose their jobs as a result of foreign competition, is a program that Democrats traditionally support. Obama traveled to Capitol Hill to personally lobby in favor of the legislation, so the lopsided vote against the program was an embarrassment to the president.

But it's worth remembering that Democrats are in the minority in the Republican-controlled House. And Republicans voted against the TAA by a margin that was only slightly less lopsided: 158 to 86.

In principle, most Republicans are in favor of the president's trade agenda. Republicans provided most of the votes for trade legislation in the Senate, and House Republicans overwhelmingly voted in favor (191 to 54) of granting the president Trade Promotion Authority shortly after the TAA vote failed. If the Republicans really wanted to see Obama's trade agenda succeed, they could have voted in favor of TAA, giving it enough votes to send the whole package to the president for his signature.

But most House Republicans weren't willing to spend the $450 million per year contemplated by the Senate bill on Trade Adjustment Assistance. That's why House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) was forced to resort to a complicated scheme where Democrats would have to approve TAA while Republicans approved the rest of the bill.

If you buy the arguments for the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which many Republicans profess to, this seems crazy. One influential study from the Peterson Institute estimated that the trade deal would generate $78 billion of economic benefits for the United States. Of course it's worth taking this kind of projection with a grain of salt. But even if we assume it's exaggerated by a factor of 10, the deal's benefits still dwarf the $450 million annual price tag of TAA.

So what's going on? One possibility is that Republicans are not actually that enthusiastic about the TPP. Perhaps they think the TPP would be good for the US economy, but they think the actual benefits would be far smaller than the Peterson researchers estimate.

A second possibility is that Republicans are happy to see the president get egg on his face. By structuring things so that a lack of Democratic votes kills the TPP, Republicans get to position themselves as being in favor of free trade without taking the risks of actually passing a bill that could prove controversial later.

The third and most likely explanation is that grassroots pressure makes it difficult for the Republican caucus to make pragmatic political compromises. The Club for Growth, a powerful conservative group, treated TAA as a "key vote," effectively threatening primary challenges against Republicans who voted in favor. Even if Republican members of the House thought $450 million was a small price to pay to get the president Trade Promotion Authority, they might not have been willing to take the personal political risk of angering the Club for Growth and other Tea Party groups by voting in favor of spending, no matter how modest.

Regardless of which explanation you believe, the bottom line is that House Republicans aren't that much more enthusiastic about Obama's trade agenda than their Democratic colleagues are. And if the TPP collapses, they'll bear some of the blame.