How Republicans Delivered on Trade Promotion Authority

How Republicans Delivered on Trade Promotion Authority
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Republican leaders in Congress have opposed President Obama at almost every turn, but they supported his push for fast-track trade authority and, through months of meticulous work within their caucus, formed a strong coalition of support around the issue.

Republicans got on board with the legislation because they felt it contained enough safeguards against executive overreach and that ultimately, fast-track trade authority would benefit the U.S. economy.

And, as it turned out, it was House Democrats who turned their backs on the president. In the days leading up to the House’s failure to pass that trade legislation Friday, the conversation was not about Republican opposition to the president, but the resistance from progressive Democrats. And when it came time to vote, Republicans banded together to pass the half of the trade legislation that they generally support, while Democrats banded together to defeat the half of the legislation that was intended to bring them on board.

The measure that passed – Trade Promotion Authority, or TPA – grants the president the right to submit trade deals to Congress for an up-or-down vote without any amendments. The White House says fast-track authority is crucial to successfully completing negotiations on the Trans-Pacific Partnership, or the TPP, the 12-nation trade deal currently being negotiated.

The measure that failed – Trade Adjustment Assistance, or TAA – was intended to aid workers who may lose jobs because of international trade deals. Though TPA passed narrowly, 219-211, it cannot go to the president’s desk without TAA because of the way the legislation was packaged.

Despite the failure of TAA, Republican leaders said they were “proud” of passing TPA, which took months of effort and was by no means guaranteed to make it through the chamber.  

“We’ve passed the component that’s been the Republican lift, and that’s getting TPA done,” Majority Whip Steve Scalise said after the vote. “We did it with a strong vote on our side and we made it clear we’re not just going to shut this thing down because the president can’t deliver on his side.”

The groundwork for that successful vote on TPA – which passed with 191 Republicans and just 28 Democrats – began months ago, with the intense outreach and vote whipping from Republican leadership and Ways and Means Committee Chairman Paul Ryan on trade.

The first obstacle was cutting through the confusion. “I’ve been doing this for a long time, and I have rarely seen this much confusion surrounding an issue,” Ryan said last week at a Rules Committee hearing about the trade legislation.

Part of the problem was the alphabet soup of trade acronyms – TPA being the fast-track authority, TAA the workers assistance program, and TPP the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Because that confusion came from both outside the halls of Congress and from within Capitol Hill – where many members weren’t around last time TPA was completed more than a decade ago – the process including educating the public as well as fellow lawmakers.

It began with Republicans on the Ways and Means Committee, which had jurisdiction over the trade legislation, said Rep. Pat Tiberi, chairman of the Ways and Means trade subcommittee. Outreach included voluntary “listening sessions,” where lawmakers were invited to come listen to Ryan, Tiberi and others outline what was in the TPA legislation, and to ask questions about it. Members who were more knowledgeable on trade, Tiberi said – either because they’d done it before or represent a district that is heavily reliant on trade – started the ball rolling.

The Whip’s office hosted 23 meetings with members to speak with Scalise and Ryan. They also often reached out one-on-one with phone calls, official meetings or just informal conversations on the House floor. Slowly, members became educated and the count of supporters grew.

“Early on, it was people who just didn’t know what was in it and wanted to find out,” a GOP leadership aide told RCP. “As things went on, certain members who were pro trade and kind of got it, who were very comfortable to begin with, they were good. As you go on, you’ve got fewer and fewer people that you need to make the case for, so necessarily as we’ve gone through this, the audience has turned more from soft-yes and undecided’s to soft-no’s but who really want to do their due diligence on this before they cast the vote.”

Rep. Dave Reichert, a member of the Ways and Means trade subcommittee and the founder of the “Friends of TPP” caucus – a group of lawmakers in support of the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal currently being negotiated – called the individual outreach to members “critical.” He added that they had “absolutely” changed minds.

“One at a time. One member at a time,” Reichert told RCP the day before the vote.

For some members, the listening sessions were about determining whether fast-track trade authority, and the trade deals that could follow, were right for their district, and Ryan and Scalise’s offices worked hard to be able to make those individual arguments. For others, it was a blank slate process and they wanted to just learn about TPA. For some, it was about clearing up what many pro-TPA Republicans describe as “misconceptions” about what the legislation does.

The length of time and number of meetings it took before members came on board – if they did come around to supporting TPA – varied significantly, according to one House Republican aide.

“Some people needed more time and more convincing, and some, once they got a few things set straight were like, ‘Okay, I’m all set, I’m on board,’” the aide said. “It all depended on who they were talking to and what their concerns were.” 

There was a prevailing feeling – perhaps not helped by the legislation being shorthanded as “fast track” – that it gave Obama sweeping power over trade deals at the expense of Congress’ role. The pro-TPA Republicans worked hard to counter those points.

The argument boiled down to transparency and accountability. Under TPA, Congress would have the ability to vote down a trade deal that didn’t live up to its standards, and the legislation includes 150 parameters for negotiating deals. Also, while Congress couldn’t amend trade deals, the deals would have to be available to the public for 60 days before being signed by the president.

“That’s slow track – that’s no fast track in my mind,” Tiberi told RCP. “Nothing sits in the public for 60 days around here before the president can sign it, before the president can submit it to Congress in bill form, so that everybody can see, including members of Congress, including the public, including the press, and that’s part of what TPA is all about.”

Supporters also had to contend with opponents’ arguments that trade deals hurt U.S. workers and cost jobs. Ultimately, these were chief among the reasons Democrats blocked the trade package – they wanted more protections for workers.

Tiberi called the lost jobs argument a “bumper sticker” about why trade is bad, and said it’s difficult for those who disagree with that position to effectively counter it.

“This is very hard to get your arms around if you don’t spend day after day after day studying this and understanding this,” he said. “The other side is much easier, and that is trade costs jobs, trade ships jobs overseas, trade is all about losing. That’s just not the case.”

Along with the general questions about Obama’s authority and the impact of trade, those whipping the trade bills had to court members with specific problems. Rep. Steve King, perhaps the most vocal congressional opponent of illegal immigration, wanted to insert language preventing trade deals from being used to change immigration laws. King said he laid out exactly what he wanted to Ryan, whom he met with three or four times to discuss the matter. Ultimately, Ryan agreed to place the language in a separate trade bill and King was a “yes” on TPA.

“I can’t measure how it’s been with others, but if [Ryan was] dealing with everyone else the way he was dealing with me, you couldn’t ask for it to be any better,” King said.

Other times, the specific interests of members weren’t met. Rep. Jim Jordan, chairman of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, said he and some of his fellow conservatives had made three very clear requirements to gain their support: a guarantee not to bring up a reauthorization of the Export-Import bank; elimination of the TAA workers assistance component; and a provision that lawmakers who aren’t on the Ways and Means Committee get equal power in rejecting trade deals.

With those three things, Jordan said he and some fellow conservatives were for TPA. Without, they were against. Though they met with Ryan and leadership, they didn’t get the concessions and Jordan voted against the legislation.

“Conservatives in Congress support free trade,” Jordan said in a statement after the vote. “We have been and still are willing to work with our leadership to make this legislation better. Our leadership tried to compromise with Democrats instead of us, and now we know that strategy failed. We stand ready to work on free trade legislation that is both transparent and consistent with Republican principles."

Majority Leader McCarthy sighed during a briefing with reporters Monday when asked about Jordan’s comments.

“We’ve listened to everybody in the House,” McCarthy said. “You can’t assume every single Republican is pro-free trade. Some people are opposed to it and that’s a microcosm, that’s when you have a national party, I understand that. People are going to have a difference of opinion, but one thing is that inside this House, everybody had meetings numerous times. There are some things that people asked for that are impossible to get to as well.”

Ultimately, the months of work from Ryan, Scalise, Tiberi and others could be for naught. Democrats overwhelmingly blocked TAA – and thus stalled TPA – Friday, and though a second vote could happen as early as this week, it’s unclear whether the White House has been able to push any Democrats to support its position. Republicans are generally opposed to TAA, and though 86 GOP members did vote for it last week, that number is unlikely to increase. Because the Senate passed the two trade measures together, one can’t go to the president’s desk without the other. And while Republicans could take up TPA on its own at a later time, it’s unclear if that could pass the Senate, where the TPA/TAA combo passed with 62 votes, just barely over the 60-vote threshold to break a filibuster.

Despite those question marks going forward, Republican leaders remained confident after the vote.

“I’m very proud of this Congress today,” Ryan said in a press conference. “I’m very proud of the House Republican caucus. I’m also very proud and thankful for the pro-trade Democrats that kept their word and stuck with us in this process. America is being watched by the rest of the world as to whether or not America is going to lead in the world, and I think this sent the right signal. Now the president has some work yet to do with his party to complete this process. This isn’t over yet.”

James Arkin is a congressional reporter for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at jarkin@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @JamesArkin.

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