President Obama hasn't yet come up with a backup plan to get a key trade bill through the House after his own party helped sink it last week, according to Democrats who met with top White House officials Tuesday.
"It's still being worked on," said Rep. Ron Kind, one of the lawmakers who met with National Economic Council chief Jeff Zients and US Trade Representative Mike Froman. "But we're talking."
The inability of the White House to formulate a political strategy for reviving the fast-track trade authority bill is the latest and most conclusive sign that the legislation is dead for now. And there doesn't appear to be a Lazarus plan to revive the bill lurking nearby in a Capitol backroom. The House voted Tuesday to extend the deadline for bringing it back to the floor to July 30.
"I don't see how you could resurrect it," South Carolina Rep. Jim Clyburn, the assistant Democratic leader and one of Obama's closest allies in Congress, told Vox in a brief interview outside the Capitol Tuesday.
The heart of the problem remains the same: Obama's Democrats have a lot of power to stop it, and most of them are worried it would smooth the path for a 12-country Trans-Pacific Partnership deal they abhor. They were able to stall the fast-track bill last week by joining with most Republicans to defeat a measure providing Trade Adjustment Assistance benefits for workers adversely affected by trade.
The two bills were linked together on the House floor, and both required majorities for either to pass. In killing the TAA measure, Democrats showed they're willing to vote against a program they support to deny Obama the trade deal.
"Keep close watch on the grave"
Most Democrats don't think it's a smart trade-off to take the trade bill — and ultimately the Trans-Pacific Partnership — in exchange for a renewal of TAA and the worker benefits that come with it.
"I'd rather not have something that helps tens of thousands of people if the price of that is something that kills millions of jobs," said Rep. Jerry Nadler, a Manhattan Democrat. He vowed to "keep close watch on the grave" of the fast-track and TAA package to ensure that it is not resuscitated.
So even if the TAA bill is amended to make it more favorable to workers — a move that would likely force a House-Senate conference that Republican leaders have tried to avoid — many Democrats will still be inclined to hold it hostage as a means to stopping the Pacific Rim deal. When TAA came up in the House last week, it failed on a 102-326 vote.
"How the hell are you going to switch all those votes?" Nadler asked.
The other obvious route
The Senate passed fast-track authority and TAA as a package last month on a 62-37 vote. After the House rejected TAA, Boehner forced a vote on just the fast-track bill, which was approved 219-211. But under the rules governing the bills, both had to win a majority in order to pass.
Now that the House has shown it can pass the fast-track bill, the obvious solution would be to go back to the Senate and try to pass it without TAA. But Democrats there have indicated they would object to voting on a fast-track bill without the provisions for workers.
Republicans on Capitol Hill said not to pronounce a time of death on the trade measures, but they are also calling on Democrats to find the necessary votes.
"All options are on the table, and we are trying to figure what is the best one. But really, this rests in the hands of the White House and congressional Dems," one senior GOP aide said. "It depends on whether or not House and Senate Dems stand by their previous votes."
The wrong guys
Democrats say the White House has botched its efforts to get the trade bill passed, including too-little-too-late visits from Obama at the congressional baseball game last Thursday night and a Democratic caucus Friday morning before the key votes. After Obama asked Democrats to "play it straight" and vote for the TAA bill so that TPA could pass, he lost the caucus 40-144.
His choice of emissaries to Capitol Hill rankled at least one of the lawmakers who met with them on Tuesday. That Democrat said Obama shouldn't have sent his policy wonks to talk to the pro-trade set about strategy.
"Wonderful guys," this Democrat said, "but they're not the political people."
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, who voted against TAA and the fast-track bill after trying to negotiate better deals on them, threw her hands in the air, palms up when asked if there was a way to get the legislation moving again. All she could offer was, "Always optimistic."
The tack-on strategy
In Congress, there's always a Hail Mary option that consists of taking a bill that has trouble passing and attaching it to something that's highly popular. The trade legislation could be packaged with a highway bill or some other measure that sweetens the deal for Democrats.
It's not yet clear, though, what kind of legislative Frankenstein's monster would pass muster with both parties in both chambers. Rep. John Larson, a Connecticut Democrat, said he could foresee a situation in which a series of stalled bills, including those funding the government, are packaged together at the end of the year.
"I think we're going to see some kind of omnibus show like we've never seen before," he said. Trade could be part of that, he added.