Agricultural Groups Help Get Obama’s Trade Agenda Rolling Again

SARA WYANT

WASHINGTON, D.C.
   What happens when President Barack Obama shows up on Capitol Hill to plead for support of one of his top trade priorities and the majority of House Democrats turn against their president?
   In a rather amazing turn of events, Republicans have come to the rescue and are poised to help Obama score a major victory. Of course, the GOP leadership views this as a win/win, because they view the vote on Trade Promotion Authority (TPA), commonly known as “fast-track legislation,” as a much-needed victory for the United States economy. Most farm organizations couldn’t agree more.
   “TPA is vital to finalizing free trade agreements that can boost U.S. pork exports,” noted the National Pork Producers Council (NPPC), which is leading a coalition of agricultural groups to get TPA passed. 
   “Failure to pass TPA, which effectively would be a vote against the Trans-Pacific Partnership, would send a signal to the world that the United States is turning its back on the Asia-Pacific region – the fastest growing area in the world – and allow other countries to write the rules for international trade.”
   But the vote for TPA, which has been granted to every president since 1974, has seen more ups and downs than a rollercoaster at your State Fair. Here’s how it’s been playing out. 
   On June 12, the House took two votes on the Senate’s trade legislation, both of which had to pass for the bill to be cleared for Obama's signature.
The first vote, which failed 126-302, came on a section of the bill that would extend Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA) programs that provide cash and training to workers, businesses and farmers harmed by trade.
   The TAA, which expires Sept. 30, has long been a priority for Democrats, but just 40 voted for the section. Critics of the president's trade policy made clear before the vote that they saw killing that section as a way of bringing down the entire legislation, which would establish the Trade Promotion Authority process for considering trade agreements in Congress, including the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
   In a 20-minute meeting with Democrats in the Capitol prior to that vote, Obama appealed to TPA opponents to “play it straight” and not to use the TAA vote as a way to kill the legislation,” lawmakers said. Ahead of the meeting, Republicans had informed Democrats that at least 100 of them needed to vote for the TAA section in order for it to pass, one Democrat said. 
   But House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., went to the House floor shortly before the vote and publicly rejected Obama's plea. Voting down TAA is “the only way we will be able to slow down the fast track,” she said. 
   Another opponent of the president's policy, Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., angrily declared that Obama's appeal amounted to questioning the integrity of his fellow Democrats.
   After the TAA vote failed, House GOP leaders went ahead with the vote on the fast-track, TPA section of the bill, and it passed, 219-211, with the support of 28 Democrats. Fifty-four Republicans, mostly unwilling to give the president anything that smelled like a victory, opposed TPA. 
   “I’m pleased that the House has the votes to approve Trade Promotion Authority. For those voting yes, it was a courageous vote in favor of keeping American agriculture in the lead on international trade,” said National Association of Wheat Growers President, Brett Blankenship. “Removing trade barriers and accessing international markets is critical for wheat farmers across the country, and I’m hopeful that House Leadership can find a path forward for concluding action.”
   Shortly after the vote, Republicans said they would hold another vote on Trade Adjustment Assistance and that it would be up to President Obama to switch the necessary Democratic votes.
   “We made it clear we're not going to shut this thing down just because the president can't deliver on his side,” said House Republican Whip Steve Scalise, R-La. “Ultimately that's up to the president to see if he can overcome the strong opposition from labor bosses.”
   Many agricultural groups worked hard behind the scenes, trying to twist the arms of reluctant House members of both parties. 
   When TPA came up for a House vote a few days later – absent the TAA portion – it was approved by 218-208, with the support of 28 Democrats including several from districts with farming and agribusiness concerns. Among them: Ron Kind of Wisconsin, Brad Ashford of Nebraska, Jim Costa of California and Kurt Schrader of Oregon. Fifty Republicans voted against the measure.
   "The world is looking to America for leadership, and today, with a bipartisan vote, the House delivered,” said House Ways and Means Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis.
   “We are again encouraged by the House's commitment to TPA and encourage the same commitment from the Senate,” said Wade Cowan, a Texas farmer who is president of the American Soybean Association.
   A key to advancing the stand-alone TPA bill back in the Senate was figuring out how to enact the extension of TAA programs, which are set to expire Sept. 30. Obama met for more than an hour with many of the pro-TPA Democrats to discuss the new plan, which calls for delaying final action on TAA until TPA clears Congress. 
   By ensuring that the fast-track bill TPA bill is enacted first, anti-TPA Democrats will no longer have any reason to vote against TAA, he said.
   The TAA extension is now to be attached to another bill (HR 1295) that would extend laws that provide duty-free status, or “preferences,” for imports from developing countries.
   Senate Finance Chairman Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, said he hopes that both bills will be sent to Obama by the end of next week.
   California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, one of 14 Democrats who voted for the earlier trade bill that combined TPA and TAA, said she expected all of them to support the new version of the fast-track bill.
   On Monday, Sen. Ron Wyden, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee, indicated that he is “on board” and that the new process will secure the necessary Senate votes. 
   Senate Finance Committee Ranking Member Ron Wyden, D-Ore., today announced he will support moving forward on trade legislation that the Senate will consider this week.
   “The trade package currently before the Senate is a blueprint for trade done right,” Wyden said. “It will make our country stronger by opening new markets to American products and creating new opportunities for good-paying American jobs.
   “Taken together, this is the most progressive trade package ever produced. I spent months negotiating this deal because it is in our country’s best interest.  It includes a Trade Promotion Authority bill that creates unprecedented transparency and raises the bar on human rights, labor, and the environment, while promoting the open Internet.  It includes a tough bill that beefs up trade enforcement and cracks down on trade cheats; and it expands support for workers through Trade Adjustment Assistance and the health coverage tax credit,” Wyden added. 
   As we go to press on Tuesday, the vote seems like a “done deal” but has not yet taken place. 
   The president and CEO of the National Milk Producers Federation, Jim Mulhern, said that enacting TPA will “signal that the United States is serious about trade negotiations.” Robert Guenther, senior vice president of public policy for the United Fresh Produce Association said new trade agreements would "open markets, create economic opportunities at home and abroad and promote trade balance for the U.S. fruit and vegetable industry."
   Note: Agri-Pulse Senior Editor Philip Brasher contributed to this column. ∆
   SARA WYANT: Editor of Agri-Pulse, a weekly e-newsletter covering farm and rural policy. To contact her, go to: http://www.agri-pulse.com/

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