WASHINGTON -- The GOP-led House of Representatives started over on trade Thursday, passing a fresh bill to give President Barack Obama sweeping powers to negotiate massive international agreements.
The measure would grant Obama and the next president what's known as Trade Promotion Authority, allowing the White House to fast-track through Congress a string of enormous trade pacts, including the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership and the Trade in Services Agreement -- covering well over half the global economy.
The House voted 218 to 208 for the bill, with 28 Democrats in favor and 50 Republicans opposed.
Proponents argued that the huge trade pacts are the only way for America to maintain its status as the world's leader and ensure economic growth.
"This is a vote for accountability and for transparency. This is a vote for a stronger economy and higher wages. This is a vote for our system of free enterprise," said the bill's top sponsor, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.). "This is a vote for American leadership. This is a vote to declare that America still has it. This is a vote to re-establish America's credibility. The world is watching."
"There is no way America can compete in a global market without a strong trade agreement," said Rep. Mike Kelly (R-Pa.). "If you want America to grow, than you must allow America to lead."
Supporters accused opponents of spreading falsehoods about the trade deals and said there would not be secret assaults on U.S. laws, standards and the environment.
If TPA becomes law, though, the public will have just two months to read and understand deals such as the TPP before the president signs them, and Congress will have to approve them as soon as a month later, with no changes permitted. Currently, all the trade pacts are secret.
"The reality is if we pass Trade Promotion Authority, we will have nothing more than an up or down vote at the end of the process. They don't have to take our amendments, they don't have to listen to what we say, and very likely what will happen is what has been negotiated already will be what the deal is," said Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.). "Nobody here will be able to impact it in through the normal course of events."
Thursday's legislative action marked a new strategy by the White House and GOP leaders after House Democrats, led by Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), stalled the trade measures a week earlier by killing a key part called Trade Adjustment Assistance, which funds programs designed to help workers who have lost their jobs to trade deals. Democrats generally back aid to workers, but voted TAA down because it was tied to the fast-track measure.
“What is not an option is passing a trade deal without TAA," Rep. Steve Israel (D-N.Y.) told reporters after the vote. "Whatever needs to be done to pass TAA must be done."
The new strategy came after days of phone calls, meetings and intense planning with the White House, the Senate GOP and House Republicans. They decided to put a clean fast-track bill on the floor -- free of any ties to the worker aid program.
Israel, who heads a new policy and communications committee for Democrats, stressed after Thursday's vote that Democrats "can't continue to drive a narrative about Democratic House members disagreeing with Democratic president."
"At this point it is imperative we get beyond process arguments and focus on our message," Israel said. "I’m interested in now passing TAA, and no longer talking on the process that is dividing Democrats ... we need to put the period at the end of this sentence."
Thursday’s vote moves the measure back to the Senate, which had passed an earlier version that was still linked to the workers' aid provisions.
The trade debate in Congress has come to resemble a game of chess played on a board made from a jigsaw puzzle, with Republicans, Democrats and the White House attempting to outmaneuver each other on complicated procedural tactics to get what they want out of the package.
With the standalone fast-track bill headed back to the Senate, new complications will emerge in passing it again there.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), Boehner and Obama have yet to convince Senate Democrats that TAA -- which they insist on being passed as a condition of granting fast-track authority -- will not be left in the dust and will be sent to the president’s desk shortly after fast-track.
McConnell and Obama have yet to strike an agreement with Senate Democrats on how to move forward, a Senate Democratic aide told The Huffington Post, adding that talks are expected to continue Thursday.
Another bill passed as part of the trade package, known as the customs bill, includes riders attached by the House that restrict the United States from using trade deals to curb climate change or change immigration laws, and that weaken human-trafficking prohibitions and currency-manipulation restrictions.
The customs bill would amend TPA if both are passed, and it was unclear Thursday whether Democrats in the Senate were willing to take a chance on that measure.
Pelosi said Thursday that she sees no way for the next part of the puzzle to be slipped into place -- passing TAA, perhaps as part of an African trade preference bill that Democrats like.
"I don’t think that that’s a path," Pelosi said.