GOP leaders moved to ban President Obama from negotiating global warming policy and changes to U.S. immigration policy in any new trade deal, working feverishly Wednesday to secure final support as they prepare for a Friday showdown on granting the White House fast-track trade authority.
The leaders’ decision to schedule the vote suggests they believe they have wrangled enough supporters to get the bill through — a test of both House Speaker John A. Boehner, who will have to deliver most of his GOP troops, and of Mr. Obama, who will have to deliver the backing of a dozen Democrats.
Part of the last-second dealmaking involved writing the changes to further tie Mr. Obama’s hands on thorny issues such as immigration and climate, which Republicans hoped would convince wary GOP House members.
“It’s just making sure that if the administration wants to go down a path of seeking legislative changes in climate change or immigration, they can’t do it through a trade agreement. They’ve got to do it the old-fashioned way and come to Congress,” said House Committee on Ways and Means Chairman Paul Ryan, the Wisconsin Republican who’s led the free trade push in the House.
Mr. Obama is seeking fast-track powers, known as trade promotion authority (TPA), in order to complete negotiations on the massive Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a deal he’s been trying to write to cut trade barriers among a dozen Pacific Rim countries.
That trade deal is the top domestic legacy item for Mr. Obama’s final years in office. But he finds himself having to rely on GOP leaders to deliver it, and those leaders are trying to convince Republicans that Mr. Obama won’t be able to use the international deal as another path to work around Congress on thorny issues.
Not all Republicans were convinced.
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Rep. Michael C. Burgess, Texas Republican, said he’s been to the secret room where lawmakers are allowed to read the current negotiating texts of the TPP — after signing a confidentiality agreement — and said he’s still worried about the immigration provisions he read. More than that, he doesn’t trust Mr. Obama to follow the limits Congress tries to put on him.
“My confidence in this administration has been and remains at an all-time low,” Mr. Burgess said.
Luckily for Mr. Obama, he doesn’t have to convince Republicans — that’s GOP leaders’ job. But Mr. Obama will have to deliver enough Democrats, and that’s proving to be difficult.
“I’ve been through this before,” said Rep. Louise McIntosh Slaughter, New York Democrat. “I’ve just never seen a trade agreement benefit American manufacturers and American workers. It was sort of like we put a big sign on our back: ‘Kick me, come take my job.’”
Mr. Obama, who has not earned a reputation for good legislative skills over his first six years in office, has ramped up his efforts this month, making personal pitches to Democrats who are still on the fence.
“The president’s going to continue to make this case to Democrats in the House. He’s going to continue to make this case to Democrats across the country,” said White House press secretary Josh Earnest, who said the trade powers Mr. Obama has asked Congress for are the most liberal in history, insisting on taking human rights, environmental and labor standards into consideration in writing future trade deals.
Some Democrats said they don’t so much fear a deal Mr. Obama would strike, but worry about the next president — potentially a Republican — who will also enjoy fast-track trade powers under the TPA the House is preparing to debate.
Most labor unions remain adamantly opposed to the deal, helping keep Democratic support low. And Mr. Obama’s heir apparent as Democrats’ leader, former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, has pointedly not backed her former boss’ trade agenda.
Meanwhile, conservative pressure groups are ramping up their opposition machine. Heritage Action, which describes itself as pro-free trade, urged lawmakers to vote against the bill unless GOP leaders give an “ironclad” commitment that they won’t reauthorize the Export-Import Bank — the current target of tea party ire.
Still, most opposition to the TPA stems not from the Export-Import Bank or the fast-track powers themselves, but with the TPP, which is still being negotiated. Opponents fear that if they approve fast-track powers, they’ll have less leverage to block a bad TPP agreement.
Mr. Ryan countered that fast-track powers actually give Congress extra authority, including access to the negotiating text and a 60-day window for any final trade agreements to be debated publicly before Congress can vote.
The changes he added to the legislation this week would further restrict the areas where Mr. Obama can negotiate on trade agreements, targeting immigration and climate change.
The immigration changes were negotiated with Rep. Steve King, Iowa Republican, who has raised concerns over the possibility that a trade agreement would grant other countries special access to business-related visas. Previous trade agreements have included those kinds of provisions.
The Obama administration has said it’s not negotiating immigration as part of the TPP, but leaked text of some of the agreement suggests that at least some of the countries involved are doing so.
That has complicated GOP leaders’ efforts, but Mr. King said the changes Mr. Ryan made satisfy him.
“I’m confident that Chairman Paul Ryan will stand with us to defend the provisions that are here,” Mr. King said.
Mr. Ryan wrote similar restrictions for global warming — drawing a rebuke from environmentalists who, unlike congressional Republicans, were hoping the president would use the trade agreements to circumvent Congress and force new conditions on the U.S.
“President Obama cannot credibly claim that trade deals will force other countries to raise their environmental standards if he allows the same deals to secure a pass for the U.S. to keep dumping carbon into the planet’s atmosphere,” said Friends of the Earth climate campaigner Luisa Abbott Galvao.