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After Setback, Trade Backers Seek Another Round on Capitol Hill

  • Michael Bowman

Concerted efforts are underway to save President Barack Obama’s trade agenda, after lawmakers of his own Democratic Party scuttled a vote critical for congressional approval of blockbuster free trade pacts spanning the Atlantic and the Pacific.

“This isn’t over yet,” said Republican Congressman Paul Ryan after Friday’s resounding House vote rejecting a retraining program for American workers impacted by trade.

In actuality, Democrats strongly favor the retraining program, but voted against it in order to block trade promotion authority (TPA), also known as “fast track,” that subjects proposed pacts to up-or-down votes with no amendments allowed. The mechanism was critical for getting past trade deals approved, notably the North American Free Trade Agreement of the 1990s between the United States, Canada, and Mexico.

House Democrats say such deals have been disasters for American workers and the environment, and are determined to block pending pacts the Obama administration has been negotiating for years.

“We can stop it here and save the American economy,” said Democratic Congressman Peter DeFazio.

While Democrats buck their own president, Republicans are in the unusual position of joining him on a major fight.

“The president has some work yet to do with his party to complete the process,” said Ryan.

To that end, Obama wasted no time, using his weekly address Saturday to call for free-trade opponents to reverse course.

“I urge members of Congress who voted against Trade Adjustment Assistance to reconsider, and stand up for American workers,” said Obama.

Publicly, at least, the White House is putting a brave face on the challenge.

“I certainly would not rule out the ability of the speaker of the House to convince even more Republicans to vote for Trade Adjustment Assistance,” said White House Spokesman Josh Earnest. “We certainly believe that we can convince more Democrats to vote for a program that many of them have previously supported and that economists can demonstrate significantly benefits middle class families all across the country.”

But so far House Democrats are holding firm against proposed trade pacts like the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and withholding votes on legislation key to facilitating their approval.

“The time has come for Congress to say ‘no’ to this agreement,” said Congressman Rick Nolan. “The time has come to put an end to them. They have been negotiated in secret for the benefit of the few and kept from the public for the benefit of a few at the top of the economic ladder. The fact is it is destroying the American dream.”

If and when another vote is scheduled is up to House Speaker John Boehner, an ardent backer of free trade.

“When America leads, the world is safer, for freedom and free enterprise,” said Boehner. “And when we do not lead, we are allowing and inviting China to set the rules of the world economy, and what that does it keep our workers and our products on the sideline.”

Retraining U.S. workers impacted by trade is a provision of a Senate-passed TPA bill. Unless the House passes identical language, trade legislation will remain stuck in Congress, and a major component of President Obama’s economic agenda will be in limbo.

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