Fast Track Down

06/15/2015 09:20 am ET | Updated Jun 15, 2016

The Fast Track trade authority package was rejected Friday because two years of effort by a vast corporate coalition, the White House and GOP leaders -- and weeks of deals swapped for yes votes -- could not assuage a majority in the House of Representatives facing constituents' concerns that more of the same trade policy would kill more jobs, push down wages and open a Pandora's box of other damaging consequences.

Proponents of Fast Tracking the almost-completed, controversial Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) say they are coming back this week for another try. And the White House was on full tilt this weekend trying to pressure House Democrats to flip their votes.

But the path to enactment of Fast Track remains unclear, even as the corporate coalition, White House and GOP leaders remain hell bent on finding it.

To understand what comes next, it's worth unpacking what exactly happened on Friday and how we got there.

The sum of it was that Byzantine procedural gimmicks designed to overcome what polls show is broad opposition to Fast Track by GOP, Democratic and Independent voters backfired.

Since the Fast Tracked 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement revealed what really was at stake with the arcane Nixon-era procedure, getting any Congress to delegate years of blank-check Fast Track authority has been a very hard sell. Since 1988, only Presidents Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush persuaded Congress to grant the multi-year Fast Track delegation President Barack Obama seeks. In 1998, 171 House Democrats and 71 GOP rejected President Bill Clinton's request. As a result, Congress has only allowed Fast Track to go into effect for five of the past 21 years.

Given past trade pacts have resulted in significant American job loss, the small bloc of Democratic Senators willing to support Fast Track authority insisted the 2015 bill include an extension of Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA). TAA is a program that provides retraining benefits for workers who lose their jobs to trade that was first enacted during the Kennedy administration. GOP leaders also had to make a promise, already broken, to win over the deciding bloc of Senate Democrats, that votes to reauthorize the Export-Import Bank would be scheduled before it expired at the end of June.

Many GOP Senators and Representatives oppose TAA, which provides glaring evidence of our current trade policy's damage in the form of a casualty list of the millions of Americans losing their jobs to bad trade policy. Major conservative groups, such as the Heritage Foundation, decry it as a welfare program for unions. And both have waged a fierce effort to kill the Ex-Im Bank.

To top it off, the GOP congressional leadership added a $700 million cut to Medicare to offset the cost of the TAA program -- undoubtedly egged on by GOP campaign consultants eager to revive the deadly effective 2012 and 2014 campaign ads against Democrats attacking them for cutting Medicare in the context of an Obamacare pay-for provision. (They expected that the Democrats would vote for TAA and the GOP against, a perfect 2016 election set up.)

And the hard-fought Senate battle was the easy part.

In the face of the expected fewer than 30 Democratic House votes for Fast Track, the GOP leaders had to maximize House GOP votes for the Fast Track-TAA bill passed by the Senate in order to send it to the president's desk for signature. To do this, the GOP House leaders concocted a fantastical procedural gimmick. They used an arcane procedure called "dividing the question" and a "self-executing rule" (seriously, that what it's called).

Those moves temporarily cracked the Senate-passed bill into three pieces to set up separate votes on Fast Track and TAA. Thus, the GOP could vote no on TAA while voting yes on Fast Track. And the self-executing rule mean that if the House passed the rule for consideration of the Fast Track-TAA package, then the Medicare pay-for language in the package would be deemed passed. Then the rule also would put all of the pieces back together -- if both the TAA and Fast Track votes got majorities. And, Fast Track would be enacted.

Apparently, the House GOP leadership believed that Democrats' strong conceptual support for TAA meant that Democrats would deliver the votes to implement the Fast Track almost all oppose, allowing the GOP to vote for Fast Track and against TAA.

Except that only 40 Democrats agreed to play by the GOP's rules. The TAA half of the package went down with 302 no votes and only 126 yesses and headlines worldwide reported Fast Track's derailment. (Only 86 of the 245 House GOP voted for the TAA half of the package.)

No doubt House Democrats would have preferred to be able to support a multi-year extension of TAA, a program that would provide benefits for tens of thousands of American workers each year hurt by past trade deals. But the version of TAA that the GOP had on offer was woefully underfunded, even without taking into account the many additional workers who would lose jobs were the TPP to go into effect. And, it excluded government service workers, farmers, fishers and more. And, it still included a significant cut to Medicare dialysis funding.

But from a wider perspective, the GOP strategy required Democrats to vote for TAA knowing that this would result in the Fast Tracking of a TPP they recognize would result in hundreds of thousands of job losses and downward pressure on all Americans' wages and empower whomever is president for the next six years to Fast Track who knows what additional job-killing trade deals.

As she announced her opposition to TAA, Democratic House Leader Nancy Pelosi summed it up: "Its defeat, sad to say, is the only way that we would be able to slow down the fast track."

And that gets to what comes next. Under the House rules, if the GOP House leaders want to call for a revote on TAA, it must occur by Tuesday night. Or they must pass an extension to extend that option. For a TAA revote to succeed more than 90 Representatives would have to flip to supporting TAA. Passing the TAA half of the bill would then enact Fast Track.

But that seems improbable for the pro-Fast Track GOP, given their own views on TAA to say nothing of the political peril that would cause given the passionate opposition by conservative groups. Plus, there is plenty of ire about how the procedural gimmick imploded.

Because before the Fast Track bill was derailed, the rule enacting the Medicare cuts was narrowly passed on an almost party-line vote. So, instead of putting all of the Democrats on the record for Medicare cuts, the GOP leadership put all but 34 House GOP on the record voting for big Medicare cuts.

Will Democrats flip en masse? Their hard choice on TAA came last week. Painful though it was, even considering the meager TAA program on offer, they decided not to play into the GOP plan to pass Fast Track.

That then leaves Fast Track supporters with various other unappealing options. The House GOP could pass a new rule that allows for a vote just on Fast Track. But given the narrow margin on that part of the package, this approach would only work if all of the 27 Democrats who voted for Fast Track and TAA were willing to become responsible for passing Fast Track without TAA. And they must do so now that Democratic Leader Pelosi has made public her opposition to the Fast Track bill and concerns about the TPP it would railroad into place.

Plus, winning this strategy would require all of the GOP who voted for Fast Track after TAA failed and it was clear the second vote was only symbolic to vote for Fast Track when it counted.

If that approach succeeded, Fast Track still would not be passed. Rather, it would trigger a conference to try to reconcile the different House and Senate bills. And then a conference report would have to be passed by the Senate and House.

Friday's outcome was a testament to the strength and diversity of the remarkable coalition of thousands of organizations that overcame a money-soaked lobbying campaign by multinational corporations and intense arm-twisting by the GOP House leadership and the Obama administration. The movement now demanding a new American trade policy is larger and more diverse than in any preceding trade policy fight. It includes everyone from small business leaders and labor unions to Internet freedom advocates and faith groups to family farmers and environmentalists to consumer advocates and LGBT groups to retirees and civil rights groups to law professors and economists.

The final chapter for Fast Track, which will greatly affect the fate of the TPP, will be written in the coming weeks.