Washington — With Majority Whip Steve Scalise, of Jefferson, leading the way, key House Republicans pressed Wednesday for full U.S. House approval of controversial trade legislation in a vote that could come as early as Friday.
“This is great for American jobs,” Scalise said at a news conference organized by supporters of “fast-track” trade authority.
Trade promotion authority supporters argue that, in combination with a different trade proposal, the authority will help open Asian markets to American goods.
“American trade is critical to creating a healthy economy and to giving American workers a competitive advantage when we want to export our products that we make here to other countries that, right now, have limitations and blockades in front of us,” Scalise said. “So, it’s important to keeping that ability for America to not only compete, but to win on world markets.”
The issue generates unusual political coalitions, with most Republicans in Congress joining Democratic President Barack Obama in support of the proposals, and most Democrats opposed.
“There have been very few opportunities where we want to advance a good conservative cause that the president’s been willing to go along with it,” Scalise said. “Here’s one of those few exceptions.”
The fast-track legislation would renew the president’s lapsed trade promotion authority, or TPA — the power to streamline approval of trade deals by presenting them to Congress for a straight up-or-down vote, with no opportunity for amendments. The fast-track option has been provided to both Democratic and Republican presidents going back to 1974, but the latest extension of the authority expired in 2007.
Fast-track supporters argue that without it, trade agreements would be nearly impossible to negotiate, because other countries would worry that Congress would tear apart any deal in a push for more concessions beyond those already in the package. Opponents say the authority strips Congress of its role in making policy.
The other Obama-backed proposal, which depends for its success on approval of fast-track authority first, is a 12-country free-trade agreement called the Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP. Still under negotiation, it would lower tariffs and other barriers to trade among the United States, Japan, Malaysia, Vietnam, Singapore, Brunei, Australia, New Zealand, Peru, Chile, Mexico and Canada, some of which also participate in existing agreements.
TPP supporters say it will open foreign markets, boost U.S. exports and create high-paying American jobs in companies that trade with the affected countries. They also say the agreement will enhance the U.S. role in the region and counteract the growing influence of China.
Opponents say it’s American jobs that will be exported, to countries with lower wages, and that the pact will enlist the United States in a “race to the bottom” that will degrade food safety, environmental protection and other U.S. standards. They cite what they say were the effects of NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement, adopted under Democratic President Bill Clinton in 1994. Organized labor is bitterly opposed to the trade legislation.
TPA passed the Senate last month with some Democratic support, which was essential to its success because under Senate rules, the Senate’s Democratic minority can block legislation if unified against it. The deal was sweetened for Democrats with money to help workers who would lose their jobs because of the trade agreements, which could open U.S. markets to more imports. Both Louisiana senators, Republicans Bill Cassidy and David Vitter, voted for the bill.
The decision by the House Republican leadership to bring the Senate bill to a floor vote indicates confidence the measure will win approval. The House operates under different rules than the Senate, and the Republican majority in the House can approve legislation on its own. But some Republicans are expected to defect from the party’s pro-trade agenda in the upcoming vote, and Obama has assiduously wooed House Democrats to assure passage and to rally bipartisan support for the measure.
The political dynamic has been playing out within the Louisiana delegation in the House.
The delegation’s sole Democrat, Cedric Richmond, of New Orleans, has been courted by the White House, but he said Wednesday that he is leaning against the TPA bill.
Scalise is an ardent supporter of the measure, as is Congressman Charles Boustany, of Lafayette, a leading trade advocate in the House. Reps. Ralph Abraham, of Alto, and Garret Graves, of Baton Rouge, are in the “yes” column, as well.
In what may be a sign the proposal is picking up support, Rep. John Fleming, of Minden, has moved from opposition to the measure to undecided, his spokeswoman said Wednesday. Fleming is a charter member of the House Freedom Caucus of arch-conservative Republicans in the House, and its members could provide a core of Republican resistance to TPA — although the trade deals are supported by the Club for Growth and the Heritage Foundation, two bastions of right-wing influence, as well as by leading business associations.
Fleming based his earlier opposition to TPA on distrust of Obama and a reluctance to provide the president with any increased authority. Fleming is a harsh critic of Obama’s executive orders suspending enforcement of some immigration laws, regarding the orders as unconstitutional.
At the news conference Wednesday, House Financial Services Committee Chairman Jeb Hensarling, R-Texas, said, “I’m sorry Barack Obama is our president, but conservatives should support TPA.”
Other U.S. House Republicans speaking for the bill included Ways & Means Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., the party’s 2012 vice-presidential candidate.
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