Why It's So Hard For Obama To Undo Democrats' Trade Revolt

06/12/2015 06:39 pm ET | Updated Jun 12, 2015
SAUL LOEB via Getty Images

WASHINGTON -- Supporters of President Barack Obama's trade agenda are searching for a new legislative strategy following Friday's embarrassing defeat. But at least one proposed tactic bouncing around Capitol Hill won't work -- simply jettisoning a key package of aid to displaced workers that Democrats just voted down.

Democrats have long supported that program, known as Trade Adjustment Assistance, which provides job training and financial aid to workers who lose their jobs as a result of foreign trade deals. By voting en masse against the program on Friday, Democrats were effectively shooting the hostage. Republicans had tied passage of the TAA package to another much broader fast-track trade bill to streamline trade agreements. The bill for fast-track, known as Trade Promotion Authority, is considered essential to passing a series of trade pacts that Democrats broadly oppose. By knocking down TAA, Democrats derailed a massive trade pact sought by Obama and Republican leaders.

That's led to murmurs that Republicans could simply threaten to pass a trade facilitation bill without TAA. The GOP did, after all, demonstrate Friday that it had enough House votes to pass the fast-track bill as stand-alone legislation with a show-vote following the TAA failure. Threatening to do fast-track alone, the reasoning goes, would intimidate Democrats into voting in favor of TAA, and approving the full package.

But House Republicans don't have much leverage on TAA. If they pass a fast-track bill without TAA, the Senate will have to vote on the package in a conference committee. And supporters of Obama's trade agenda don't have the votes to approve a fast-track bill without TAA.

In May, a combined fast-track and TAA package garnered just 62 votes in the Senate -- barely enough to overcome a filibuster. And many of the few Democratic supporters on the Senate side said at the time that they would not vote for a fast-track bill that did not include TAA.

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) said in April: "An agreement must include not only trade promotion authority, but other vital issues like trade adjustment assistance and enforcement."

Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) said May 23 that she wouldn't back any compromise with the House that didn't include TAA: "I want to be very clear about my expectations for the upcoming TPA conference committee. I strongly believe any agreement between the House and the Senate must include the Senate trade adjustment assistance package."

Murray's Democratic colleague from Washington, Sen. Maria Cantwell, told National Journal on April 21 she wouldn't back a fast-track bill without TAA. "You've got to have TAA to go with trade," Cantwell said. "I'm a supporter of [fast-track], but listen, the notion that kind of rumpled up around in the last couple of days that TAA might not get done is a very bad message. You've got to take care of the workforce."

Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) said May 14 that he wouldn't support a "piecemeal" approach to trade that didn't include TAA, and Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) told the Springfield (Mo.) News-Leader the same thing.

"I refused to vote to begin debate on TPA without simultaneously voting for TAA and two separate bills to strengthen enforcement of fair trade rules and support American businesses," Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) said May 14.

"The package must include Trade Adjustment Assistance, a critical program that provides income support for workers displaced by international trade as well as funds to retrain them for new jobs," Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said May 7.

Those commitments make it very unlikely that Republicans will be able to advance a trade package that does not include TAA funding.

The overwhelming majority of Democrats, a bloc of tea party Republicans, labor unions, environmental groups and Internet freedom advocates oppose Obama's trade agenda, while Republican leaders and corporate lobbyists with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce support it.

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