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Republicans have a plan to save Obama's big trade bill

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) (2-R) walks up tp speak to the media after the Republican policy luncheon at the U.S. Capitol June 16, 2015 in Washington, DC.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) (2-R) walks up tp speak to the media after the Republican policy luncheon at the U.S. Capitol June 16, 2015 in Washington, DC.
Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Congressional Republican leaders are considering a legislative maneuver that could salvage President Barack Obama's trade agenda, senior GOP aides said late Tuesday.

Obama has been pushing the House to grant him fast-track trade negotiating authority, which would guarantee an up-or-down vote on the 12-country Trans-Pacific Partnership deal (TPP) he's negotiating. The Senate has already passed a bill that combines fast-track authority with an extension of Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA), a program traditionally backed by Democrats that compensates workers who've lost their jobs due to foreign trade competition. In the House, leaders split TAA and fast track into two proposals, hoping they'd get Democratic backing on the latter and Republican backing on the former. Fast track passed, but since most House Democrats oppose TPP, and knew a vote for TAA was a vote for the trade deal, the overwhelming majority of them voted on Friday to kill the TAA bill.

Now Republican leaders are trying to figure out a way for the Senate to vote for the fast-track bill without TAA. In the scenario envisioned by GOP leaders — which they haven't yet committed to — the House would pass the fast-track bill without TAA and send it to the Senate (though fast track already passed, the House would still need to vote on it again for procedural reasons). Then pro-trade Senate Democrats would be asked to vote for the fast-track bill with a promise that the TAA bill would also pass the House and be signed by Obama later. That's a tall order in and of itself. But the idea is that if fast track has already passed in the Senate, then House Democrats would have nothing to lose by backing TAA and it'd be much likelier to pass.

The proposal would require a lot of trust between the parties and the chambers, something that is in short supply in the Capitol most of the time. Republican aides cautioned that it is still in the works.

Senior Senate Democratic aides said Tuesday that the chances of the plan making it through the gauntlet are low, but not zero.

"Unlikely, but too early to say," one Democratic aide said.

It is the "only play" for the White House and congressional GOP leaders who want to ensure that fast-track authority and the Pacific Rim trade deal get done, said one veteran House Democrat.