Washington. Republicans aimed for a vote on Friday to hand US President Barack Obama the coveted “fast-track” trade negotiating authority he needs to complete his signature Pacific trade pact, but Democrats warned the matter was far from settled.
Even as Democratic leaders huddled in the Capitol over ways to help House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner move a package of trade bills to a vote, the Republican-controlled House Rules Committee was debating steps on trade that upset some Democrats.
Those included language that would ensure trade agreements do not lead to changes in US laws on immigration or climate change, addressing pet concerns of some Republicans. They were among more than 60 amendments suggested.
Representative Joseph Crowley, a member of the House Democratic leadership, emerged from one closed-door meeting to tell reporters that discussions were “going to go back and forth” late Wednesday and possibly into Thursday.
The core legislation — fast-track trade authority for the president — is a central part of Obama’s strategic shift toward Asia. It would be accomplished in part through the Trans-Pacific Partnership that could boost global economic growth and US exports, while setting common standards among emerging and rich nations in one of the world’s biggest trade deals.
Early on Wednesday, Boehner’s office confirmed there would be a vote this week on a “fast-track” bill that has already been approved by the Senate. The legislation would enhance Obama’s negotiating clout by letting Congress set negotiating objectives for trade deals such as the TPP, but preventing lawmakers from making changes to the final agreement.
If the legislation passes, it would reassure Japan, the second-largest economy, after the United States, involved in the TPP talks. Japanese officials have said fast-track approval is necessary for the creation of the 12-nation TPP, which would encompass 40 percent of the world economy.
“Trade votes are never an easy lift around here, but Republicans are continuing to work, and we’re seeing some positive momentum in the right direction,” Boehner said after a closed-door meeting with fellow Republican lawmakers.
Exiting the meeting, Representative Paul Ryan, who chairs the powerful House tax committee, said he was “comfortable” that the measure had enough backing in the House, where Republicans have 246 seats to Democrats’ 188.
But some Republicans want concessions from the White House before pledging support for the bill.
“We hold some cards that we previously haven’t held with this president, and I think we ought to play them out,” said Republican Kevin Cramer, who wants to lift an oil export ban, a move that would benefit his state of North Dakota.
Democrats are uncomfortable with funding for a program to help workers who lose their jobs due to trade. Republican and Democratic aides said House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi and Boehner had found a way to pay for the $2.7 billion worker support program without cutting healthcare funding for seniors.
A congressional source, who asked not to be identified, said the new funding, worth $700 million, would come from cracking down on illegal tax activities. But because that change would be included in separate legislation, a Democratic aide said members worried it might not pass.
Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell said the Senate would work “expeditiously” to approve the bill and send it to Obama.
Business groups renewed lobbying efforts for fast-track, with a personalized letter to each lawmaker signed by Business Roundtable Chairman and AT&T chief executive officer Randall Stephenson, and Thomas Linebarger, CEO of diesel engine-maker Cummins.
A Republican aide said the plan was to split the main trade bill and hold separate votes on fast-track and worker aid. Failure of either vote would mean starting again in the House.
Amid the infighting over the trade bills that could continue right up until Friday’s votes, many lawmakers were more focused on Thursday’s annual congressional baseball game, a charity fundraiser that will stop work in Congress that night.
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