A nail-biter in the House for Fast Track trade authority

Republicans in the House are saying that they are confident they have the votes to deliver Fast Track trade authority to the president when a vote is held sometime later this week. 

But outside observers say that the issue is still very much in doubt, and that a coalition of protectionist Republicans, libertarians, and far-left liberal Democrats may yet prevent the measure from passing.


Congressional sources estimate the pool of undecided members at just over a dozen lawmakers — mostly Democrats torn between supporting Obama’s quest for a historic Pacific Rim trade deal and traditional party backers like labor unions, who have turned the TPA vote into a litmus test for deciding whether to support incumbents heading into 2016.

Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Wisconsin Rep. Ron Kind, the lead Democrat whipping for the legislation, need at least 217 members to support the deal for it to pass, though congressional sources say both sides want 220 to 225 “yes” votes lined up to avoid the possibility that any one lawmaker could be tagged with casting the deciding vote. So far, more than 18 Democrats have publicly committed to supporting the legislation.

“Over the last few weeks, we have gained more support amongst House Democrats to pass a trade promotion authority bill that will strengthen fundamental labor and environmental rights protections and gives the American people at least 90 days to review every line, every word and every comma in the trade agreement before the House will vote on an agreement,” Kind said.

Kind added, “I am confident that we are going to have the Democratic votes needed to pass TPA.”

Selling fast-track to the House Democratic Caucus has always been the major hurdle, as the overwhelming majority of Republicans support the measure.

Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California and Minority Whip Steny Hoyer of Maryland have said they are committed to finding a “path to yes.” But they have otherwise refused to signal which way they are leaning on fast-track.

Most GOP opposition comes from the fact that few lawmakers have bothered to read what's been negotiated so far, as President Obama is insisting that the text must be kept secret.  This has raised alarm bells on the right, because Fast Track would allow Congress only to vote up or down on the treaty, preventing members from offering amendments.  Republicans and the president say that this is necessary because of the complex nature of the treaty – that the agreement would be derailed if Congress began altering its terms.  Conservatives counter with the argument that all sorts of mischief can be placed in the treaty, including provisions on global warming and immigration. 

At stake is the future economic health of the U.S.  The treaty would include free trade provisions encompassing 11 Pacific Rim nations – some of the most dynamic and fastest-growing economies in the world.  Our future clearly lies in Asia, as do future challenges to our national security.  Do these 11 nations gravitate toward the Chinese orbit or ally themselves with the U.S.?  This massive treaty – which has its good points and bad points – would set the stage for security agreements and cooperation that could check the Chinese in their obvious designs to dominate Asia.

Doubts about the treaty are well-founded, and concern over provisions on climate change and immigration are not without merit.  But passing Fast Track would still give Congress the right to vote the treaty up or down if some of these provisions are too onerous.  Considering how close the vote in the Senate was and how close it will be in the House, President Obama is on notice that it won't take much to tip the balance against the treaty if provisions antithetical to U.S. domestic economic interests are included.

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