Obama quest for fast-track trade bill on ice in US House

Obama quest for fast-track trade bill on ice in US House
US President Barack Obama
PHOTO: Reuters

WASHINGTON - A raging battle over President Barack Obama's request for "fast-track" authority central to improving US ties with Asia resumes in the House of Representatives next week when lawmakers are expected to try to reverse Friday's defeat of linchpin trade legislation.

House Democrats disregarded Obama's personal pleas and teamed up with Republicans, for different reasons, to overwhelmingly defeat a programme that helps American workers who lose their jobs as a result of trade deals.

Supporters were heartened, however, when the House narrowly approved a separate measure to give Obama "fast-track" authority to negotiate the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) 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.

Both measures are included in one bill and both need to be approved before the legislation can clear the House.

A House Republican aide told reporters Republican leaders hope to stage a vote again on Tuesday to pass the worker aid portion of the bill. That would allow the entire bill to be signed into law by Obama, but its chances were unclear.

Obama, who made a last-ditch personal appeal to congressional Democrats to support the worker aid programme, urged lawmakers to get behind the twin initiatives. "New trade agreements should go hand in hand with support to American workers who've been harmed by trade in the past," he said in a statement, noting the programme helps about 100,000 workers per year.

Republican Steve Scalise, a member of the House leadership team, said the president had to work with recalcitrant Democrats to get the numbers for the programme. "They took a hostage that they might realise now they can't afford to shoot," he said.

The worker aid programme, which expires in September, drew heavy opposition from both parties, with 158 Republicans joining 144 Democrats in voting "no." The overall vote was 302-126 against.

Trading partners such as Japan have urged the US Congress to pass fast-track to help wrap up a Pacific Rim trade deal covering 40 per cent of the world's economy.

Perosnal Plea falls flat Hours before lawmakers were due to vote on the legislation, Obama arrived at Capitol Hill with Labor Secretary Thomas Perez for the culmination of a short but intense blitz to counter union efforts to use the worker support programme to kill fast-track.

The AFL-CIO, the country's largest labour organisation, claimed that funding for the worker aid programme 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.

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

Boehner, the top Republican, in consultation with House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi - who voted against the worker programme - is expected to weigh next steps.

A House Republican leadership aide said that leading up to Tuesday, when another vote could occur, Obama had to speak to Pelosi and House Democrats to get them on board. "They have the weekend" to build support for the worker aid programme and allow the whole bill to be signed into law, said the aide, who also left open the possibility of searching for additional Republican votes.

But a House Democratic aide said it was unlikely that anything would transpire between Friday and Tuesday to get Pelosi's vote, or the votes of many more Democrats.

Meanwhile, Pelosi sent a letter to fellow Democrats saying that prospects for passing a fast-track trade bill "will greatly increase" if Congress were to pass a "robust" bill authorizing highway construction projects, which expire at the end of July.

Those road, bridge and mass transit projects are chock full of good-paying union jobs repairing crumbling infrastructure.

Pelosi also demanded stronger protections in the trade legislation for workers and the environment, which are not easy to craft in the few days leading to Tuesday's vote.

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, but with provisions that upset many Democrats, for example on giving countries deemed soft on human trafficking a way to still participate in fast-tracked trade deals.

Differences will have to be ironed out in a joint meeting of House and Senate negotiators.

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