Boehner Gambles and Wins on TPA, but Trade Deal Could Still Be a Loser
Policy + Politics

Boehner Gambles and Wins on TPA, but Trade Deal Could Still Be a Loser

House Speaker John Boehner rolled the dice on a high-stakes vote Thursday, and for once they didn’t come up snake eyes. 

Boehner gambled that he could bring a stand-alone bill giving President Obama Trade Promotion Authority to the floor of the House Thursday for a successful vote, and he came up a winner. The House passed the bill 218-208, with the support of 28 Democrats who broke ranks to fill a void caused by 50 Republicans who voted against it. 

Related: Congress Still Can’t Find a Route to Fix Highway Funding 

But Boehner’s gambit to give President Obama the authority to bring major international trade agreements to Congress for up-or-down votes with no opportunity for amendments is not complete. It will require the Senate, which already voted in favor of TPA once, to do so again. 

While re-passing TPA in the Senate might sound like a foregone conclusion, it’s not. TPA cleared the Senate in part because it was paired with a Democratic priority called Trade Adjustment Assistance, which funds job training and economic assistance for workers whose jobs have been shipped overseas. The sweetener was needed because many Democrats are opposed to the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, which they claim caters too much to the needs of big business and not enough to workers and the environment. 

In the House last week, leadership split the two elements of the Senate bill into separate votes, hoping that a majority made up mostly of Republicans would pass the TPA portion, while a majority made up mostly of Democrats would pass the TAA portion. The first part of the plan worked, but a large majority of Democrats, including House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, turned out to hate TPA more than they loved TAA, and were willing to scuttle a major Democratic priority in order to, as Pelosi put it, “slow down fast-track.” 

Because the two houses of Congress have to agree on an identical bill in order to send it to the president for his signature, the Senate now has to pass the standalone version of TPA. And that could prove tricky. Last month, 14 pro-trade Democrats voted with Republicans to advance TPA, but they did so with the TAA funding attached. The bill ultimately passed 62-37 at the time. 

Related: How TPA Could Make Trade Deals More Transparent 

However, because votes in the Senate can be filibustered by the minority if the majority cannot muster 60 votes to cut off debate, the supporters of TPA can only afford to lose three Democrats if they want to guarantee the bill a floor vote. 

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is reportedly making promises that a standalone TAA bill will be considered promptly, in an effort to persuade Democrats to stay with him. 

Still, it’s unclear how persuasive that will be. The dynamics have now shifted. Because their vote in favor of TPA would send it to the president’s desk and leave them with nothing to negotiate with when it comes to getting House Republicans to pass TAA, Democrats may find themselves thinking twice about their support for it. 

Boehner may have won on his first roll of the dice, but McConnell has to roll them now, and the outcome is far from certain. 

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