Lawmakers, Obama officials scramble on trade

Story highlights

Congress has failed to move forward on President Barack Obama's trade deal

Lawmakers and White House officials supportive of the deal are scrambling to find a forward path

CNN  — 

There’s no path for Congress to send President Barack Obama a historic free trade package right now, potentially marking the death of a measure he envisioned as a pillar of his second-term legacy.

The House voted Tuesday to extend until the end of July a deadline for resolution on a trade package after the measure failed dramatically last week amid a Democratic rebellion.

The delay hardly resolves the issue as top lawmakers readily admit they don’t know what they’ll do to change the outcome. Presidential politics, meanwhile, are inflaming the situation as Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton sides with her party on Capitol Hill in critiquing the measure.

RELATED: 45 times Secretary Clinton pushed the trade bill she now opposes

“There are a number of options that are being looked at — none that have been decided,” House Republican Whip Steve Scalise of Louisiana told CNN.

There are two bills at issue in the congressional standoff. One, called trade promotion authority, would clear the way for Obama’s 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership by guaranteeing it an up-or-down vote without amendments. It’s backed by Republicans but opposed by Democrats who largely loathe the prospect of another big trade agreement.

The other is Trade Adjustment Assistance, which aids workers displaced by globalization. This measure is backed by Democrats but opposed by Republicans who see it as an unnecessary welfare program.

The challenge confounding both the White House and GOP congressional leaders is how to advance two separate trade measures at the same time.

The Senate found enough votes to pass both measures by linking them together. But the House couldn’t follow suit, so House Speaker Boehner, R-Ohio, split them in two, hoping Republicans would provide most of the votes for trade promotion authority and Democrats would support Trade Adjustment Assistance.


House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi of California upended that plan by leading a rebellion on Friday, voting against the assistance bill – and giving cover to other Democrats who joined her – in order to bring down the entire package.

Any hope that it could be revived quickly seemed to dim on Monday as the finger pointing on Capitol Hill grew.

Boehner’s team felt they gave the White House a second chance by quickly moving for a re-vote on Tuesday. But Republican aides privately complained that the President and his top Cabinet members did little to no outreach over the weekend.

Obama and Boehner connected by phone several times on Monday to talk trade, but aides wouldn’t offer details of their conversation.

Obama also spoke to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on the issue.

“It’s still my hope that we can achieve what we set out to achieve together, which is to get a six-year Trade Promotion Authority bill in place,” McConnell said on the Senate floor on Tuesday.

“We think it’s absolutely essential not only for our commercial advantage, but also it has an important defense and foreign policy component to it‎, as the countries on the Asia and Pacific rim would like to have a greater relationship with us as a hedge against an increasingly expansive China‎,” McConnell said.

White House press secretary Josh Earnest said Monday “there have been a number of conversations over the weekend and already today about the legislative path forward.”

“The President and the rest of us here at the White House continue to be confident that there is strong bipartisan support for this approach, and we just have to figure out how to untangle the legislative snafu in the House,” he said.

About 25 pro-trade Democrats met with White House officials on Tuesday, but admitted afterward that there is still no strategy to resurrect fast-track legislation.

RELATED: Why a trade deal matters to ‘big on the pig’ Iowa

“This is a work in progress,” Virginia Rep. Gerry Connolly told reporters.

The session was mostly focused on communications efforts, Democrats said, not a detailed back and forth about charting a new legislative path for the trade package that failed to pass the House on Friday.

Administration officials have been making calls to opponents of the fast track. But Connolly said once members voted against the President on trade adjustment assistance, it’s hard to see how any significant number could change their position now.

“Almost no one has any leverage – it’s been expended. Boehner doesn’t have any leverage. Pelosi no longer has leverage. The White House doesn’t have leverage – it’s actually a remarkable thing,” Connolly said.

Rep. Ron Kind, D-Wisconsin, who also attended the meeting, told reporters that while attention has been focused on Democrats, any path forward has to involve GOP help.

“The last time I checked 48 Senate Republicans voted for TAA – when it came out with TPA,” Kind said, referring to the bipartisan Senate trade vote.

Multiple House Republicans told CNN there are all kinds of options being kicked around about alternative strategies, but none of them are easy or guaranteed to get a bill to the President’s desk.

Asked Monday whether the trade bill Democrats had rejected last week could pass on Tuesday, the No. 2 House Democrat, Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland, said “no.”

House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-California, said he was “very confused and disappointed” by Pelosi’s decision.

Kevin Smith, a spokesman for Boehner, said the delay “will give the President more time to communicate the consequences of not moving forward with his party.”

RELATED: Obama’s pivot to nowhere

One GOP leadership aide, speaking on the condition of anonymity because the situation remains in flux, said that the “easiest route forward is if the President can bring his party together and actually encourage them to vote for a program they once supported.”

But if Democrats continue to block the Trade Adjustment Assistance portion of the bill package, the aide said, GOP leaders could move ahead with a vote on only trade promotion authority — no longer linked to the Democrat-backed program — and then try to work something out with the Senate.


Adding to the complicated dynamics is the fact that Clinton isn’t offering Obama any support on the campaign trail. She name-checked Pelosi twice on Sunday, praising the Democratic leader and saying Obama should listen to her concerns with the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

Clinton hasn’t waded into the fight over trade promotion authority, calling it on Monday a “process issue,” but she did suggest that the White House needed to extract better commitments from the other 11 countries involved in the negotiations, including Japan, Australia, Canada and Mexico, before asking for the authority.

“I believe that you take whatever happens to you in a negotiation and you try to leverage it,” Clinton said.

“In this case, I believe that one of the ways the president could get fast-track authority is to deal with the legitimate concerns of those Democrats who are potential ‘yes’ voters, to see what within the negotiation — or what’s even in the existing framework agreement that is being drafted — could be modified or changed.”

Republican aides noticed Clinton’s remarks, complaining that her comments made an already-difficult legislative situation tougher.

“Hillary threw the President under the bus this weekend,” a separate GOP aide said, arguing that passing trade promotion authority — which trade negotiators say is crucial to getting other countries to make their best offers and take the political risk of signing off on a final agreement — actually “gives you the best leverage to negotiate these trade agreements.”

Republicans were remaining optimistic on Tuesday, saying they’re still searching for ways to hand Obama trade promotion authority.

Boehner told reporters Tuesday that “we’re committed to getting TPA done as soon as possible.”

While people on both sides of trade struggled to explain how the legislation could be revived in some form, Oklahoma GOP Rep. Tom Cole predicted. “Nothing ever really dies around here.”

CNN’s Eric Bradner reported from Concord, New Hampshire, while Deirdre Walsh reported from Washington