Quest for fast-track trade bill defeated for now in U.S. House

(Photo courtesy Architect of the Capitol,

Washington | Reuters –– The U.S. House of Representatives on Friday delivered a blow to President Barack Obama’s signature goal of strengthening ties with Asia but could try again as soon as Tuesday to reverse defeat of a measure central to a Pacific Rim trade pact.

In a dramatic vote, Obama’s own Democrats, as well as Republicans, rejected a program to give aid to workers who lose their jobs as a result of U.S. trade deals with other countries. The measure was soundly defeated in a 302-126 vote.

That was quickly followed by the House’s narrow approval of a separate measure to give Obama “fast-track” authority to negotiate the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal. But the legislation is stuck in the House because of the defeat Obama and House Speaker John Boehner suffered on the first vote.

A House Republican aide told reporters Republican leaders hope to try again Tuesday to pass the worker aid portion of the bill. That would allow the entire trade promotion authority (TPA) legislation to be signed into law by Obama, but its chances were unclear.

White House spokesman Josh Earnest dismissed the failed vote as a “procedural snafu” and was confident Democrats would come around to support the measure.

Republican Pete Sessions said Democrats would have to do some “soul-searching this weekend” to figure out the future of the worker support program, known as trade adjustment assistance (TAA).

“We’re going to pass TPA,” said Sessions, the head of the powerful House rules committee. “The question is going to be whether TAA is going to be in it.”

The worker aid program drew heavy opposition from both parties, with 158 Republicans joining 144 Democrats in voting “no.”

Trading partners such as Japan have urged the U.S. Congress to pass fast-track to help wrap up a Pacific Rim trade deal covering 40 percent of the world’s economy.

Personal plea falls flat

Obama had lobbied hard to win over skeptical Democrats and forged an unusual alliance with the Republicans who control Congress and made a last-ditch personal appeal to congressional Democrats to back his trade agenda on Friday.

Hours before lawmakers were due to vote on legislation central to the trade accord, Obama arrived at Capitol Hill with Labour Secretary Thomas Perez for the culmination of an intense effort to build support among Democrats.

Republican support was always weak for the worker aid part of the “fast-track” trade legislation and Democrats’ support eroded this week following an intensive lobbying campaign by U.S. organized labour leaders.

The AFL-CIO, the country’s largest labour organization, argued that funding for the worker aid program, which runs out in September, would be insufficient.

But it also rallied support for its cause by arguing that a vote against worker aid would be the perfect tactic for stopping fast track dead in its tracks.

Fast-track authority would let lawmakers set negotiating objectives for trade deals, but restrict them to only a yes-or-no vote on the finished agreement.

Many Democrats have worried that giving Obama fast-track authority to finish the TPP would result in job losses in their home districts just as the United States was making economic gains that have led to a brightening jobs picture nationally.

Boehner, the top Republican, in consultation with House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, is expected to weigh next steps.

For example, they could try to make some changes to the worker training program or schedule more one-on-one meetings with lawmakers to allay their concerns.

The Senate, in a strong bipartisan vote, has already approved the package of trade measures, which includes a customs enforcement bill. That piece of the puzzle passed the House too.

Krista Hughes and Richard Cowan are Reuters correspondents covering trade policy and Congress respectively from Washington, D.C. Additional reporting for Reuters by David Lawder, Julia Edwards, Roberta Rampton, Susan Cornwell, Alex Wilts and Elvina Nawaguna.

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