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Obama's new trade plan: ask Senate Democrats to trust Republicans

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (L) (D-CA) talks with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) before a photo op to celebrate National Seersucker Day at the US Capitol Building on June 11, 2015, in Washington, DC.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (L) (D-CA) talks with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) before a photo op to celebrate National Seersucker Day at the US Capitol Building on June 11, 2015, in Washington, DC.
Paul Morigi/Getty Images

The fate of President Barack Obama's trade agenda now hinges on a series of Senate votes that Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has scheduled for early next week.

McConnell, a Kentucky Republican who is working with the Democratic president on trade, filed a bill giving Obama the authority to negotiate a 12-country deal called the Trans-Pacific Partnership under expedited rules, just hours after the House had passed it earlier Thursday. That power is called Trade Promotion Authority (TPA).

In concert with the White House, McConnell and House Speaker John Boehner are in the midst of a complicated legislative maneuver designed to overcome what looked like a back-breaking House vote last Friday against a related measure providing Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA) benefits for workers hurt by trade deals.

The GOP leaders have promised to deliver both bills, and White House spokesperson Eric Schultz said Thursday that Obama "wants both TPA and TAA at his desk for his signature as soon as possible," calling victory on the pair "the only strategy that we support moving through Congress."

One at a time, please

But Boehner and McConnell were forced to decouple the bills because House Democrats, in an effort to stop Trade Promotion Authority and the Trans-Pacific Partnership deal, voted overwhelmingly to sink TAA when it was attached to TPA. That set up the House vote Thursday on a standalone TPA bill that is now scheduled for a Senate vote next week.

What Schultz stopped just short of saying — and this is important — is that the president would veto TPA if he doesn't get TAA, which Democrats support when they're not trying to undermine other legislation. Rep. Jim Himes, a Connecticut Democrat who backs the trade bills, said Thursday that he's been assured by the White House that the president would sign TPA "in anticipation of" Congress sending him TAA. That is, he would sign TPA into law before TAA makes it through Congress.

The reason that matters is because Senate Democrats who voted for a bill including both components last month are being asked to vote for the House-passed TPA bill and send it to the president on the promise that it will be followed up by a TAA bill that House Democrats voted to reject just a week ago. It is not clear yet whether they will do that, even though McConnell and Boehner issued a joint statement earlier this week committing themselves to getting both bills to the president.

The remaining steps are now in motion.

  1. The Senate is expected to vote next week on the standalone TPA bill the House passed Thursday on a 218–208 vote, with 28 Democrats joining 190 Republicans to pass it.
  2. If the Senate passes that bill, it goes straight to the president's desk.
  3. After the TPA vote, the Senate would take up a bill that combines TAA with an extension and expansion of an existing Africa trade law that is not controversial.
  4. If the Senate passes the TAA bill, it would be sent to the House.
  5. Supporters of the trade bills believe that if TAA is sent to the House after the president has signed TPA — or at least has it in hand and can threaten to sign it without TAA — House Democrats will come around and vote for TAA.