House Passes Fast-Track Trade Bill, but Senate Outcome Uncertain

Dow Jones Newswires

The House on Thursday passed legislation to restore presidential power to ease trade pacts through Congress, as Republicans and pro-trade Democrats drove through a new fast-track bill a week after liberals brought down a similar measure in an uprising against their own president.

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The 218-208 vote was the House's second attempt to give President Barack Obama the power to submit trade deals to Congress for an up-or-down vote without amendments.

But the course forward is uncertain. The fate of the fast-track legislation is intertwined with a related measure to help workers hurt by international trade. Many pro-trade Senate Democrats say they won't vote for the fast-track bill without evidence the workers' aid program will pass both chambers.

House and Senate Republican leaders have committed to separately passing the workers' assistance extension, but Democrats are anxious about whether they can deliver.

Mr. Obama has long pushed for fast-track authority, which many past presidents have had. The power is seen as necessary to wrap up a 12-nation trade pact among countries around the Pacific Ocean and possibly, later, an agreement with European nations.

Talks over the Pacific accord are nearly complete but have come to a standstill because U.S. trading partners are unwilling to make their best, final offers until Congress signals it is on board with the talks and won't amend any agreement.

The Senate had already passed fast-track legislation, but House Democrats, led by Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D., Calif.), sank the bill last week by voting against a key component. In response, House Republican leaders stripped out that portion of the bill, which would extend a program to help workers hurt by import competition or production shifts overseas. Instead, House Republicans brought a stand-alone fast-track measure to the floor on Thursday and promised to separately advance a measure to renew the aid program, known as Trade Adjustment Assistance or TAA.

Even with the leaders' commitments however, supporters of TAA are concerned that Republicans, who are in the majority in both chambers, would oppose it. Many Republicans call the program an inefficient form of government welfare, and persuading Republicans in both chambers to support it could present a challenge.

A pro-trade House Democrat who met on Wednesday with Mr. Obama said the president said he would sign the fast-track bill into law before Congress had passed a bill to renew the workers' aid program.

While Mr. Obama's move would put pressure on House Democrats to reverse course and vote for a workers' aid program they had previously voted against to sink the fast-track bill, the action could also cut both ways. Some pro-trade Senate Democrats could withhold their support for the fast-track bill if they thought Mr. Obama was giving up his leverage to force passage of the Trade Adjustment Assistance program.

"I can't predict that," Mrs. Pelosi said on Thursday when asked if she thought both the fast-track bill and the TAA measure would pass. "I don't see a path right now for TAA."

The passage of a narrower fast-track bill through the House itself depended on the willingness of a small group of pro-trade Democrats to trust House Speaker John Boehner (R., Ohio) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.), who had promised to find a way to separately renew the workers' aid program. Mr. Obama, who has closely coordinated with the two Republicans, worked this week to build that trust, meeting this week with pro-trade Democrats at the White House to convince them that there was a separate path forward for the renewal of Trade Adjustment Assistance, which expires at the end of September.

"The only legislative strategy that the president will support is a strategy that results in both TPA and TAA coming to his desk," White House spokesman Josh Earnest said on Wednesday. "There are a variety of ways to do that."

Liberal groups weren't convinced, and one outlined plans to take revenge on Democrats who voted for the fast-track bill.

"Any Democrat in Congress who trusts John Boehner or Mitch McConnell to pass Trade Adjustment Assistance, that will actually help working families, deserves to lose their job," said Jim Dean, the chair of Democracy for America, in a statement. "Whether it's this election cycle or election cycles to come, Democracy for America will actively search for opportunities to make sure they lose their jobs and are replaced with real Democrats committed to fighting growing income inequality, not enabling it."

William Mauldin contributed to this article.

(By Siobhan Hughes)

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