Fast Track runs off the rails

No Fast Track rallyFast Track appeared to go down to defeat in the U.S. House June 12, even though a Fast Track bill passed the House 219-211. But that apparent defeat might unravel, because House Republican leaders could schedule a re-vote any time through the end of July.

As with everything Congress does these days, it’s complicated.

Fast Track is a proposal by Congress to tie its own hands in how it deals with future NAFTA-style trade deals: Those foreign agreements, once negotiated and signed by the president, would get a speedy up-or-down vote in Congress with limited debate and no ability to amend. The labor movement has fought Fast Track time and again, and Fast Track hasn’t been renewed since the last one expired in 2007.

But President Barack Obama has made passing Fast Track his top priority, and has pushed Democrats to give it to him so he can finish negotiations on several secret deals, including the Trans-Pacific Partnership with 11 other Pacific Rim nations, including Vietnam and Japan.

In the lead-up to the June 12 House vote, Obama met privately with the entire House Democratic caucus; it was the first time in nearly two years that Obama had visited the Capitol to lobby members. It didn’t go well.

“Basically the president tried to both guilt people and then impugn their integrity,” Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), told Talking Points Memo afterward. “There was a number of us who were insulted.”

The Senate had passed Fast Track 62-37 May 22, but the Senate bill also included renewal of Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA), the program that provides benefits to American workers who lose their jobs because of foreign trade. The House Republican leadership decided to consider those two parts separately. Fast Track passed 219-211, but TAA failed 126-302.

For a bill to get to the president’s desk, House and Senate versions have to match. If they don’t, one or both of the legislative chambers have to change and revote the legislation so the two versions conform. The Senate, with its filibuster rule, can be a tough place to pass any legislation. Some Senate Democrats were reluctant to pass Fast Track without TAA. Thus, a defeat of the TAA bill in the House would set back Fast Track. Knowing that Republicans have tended to oppose TAA, many House Democrats voted against TAA as a way to slow down Fast Track, even though TAA itself is supported by nearly all Democrats.

But even as she led members of the Democratic caucus to vote no on TAA, Democratic Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi signaled possible support for Fast Track later on.

“I was hopeful from the start of all of this discussion that we could find a path to yes for the Fast Track legislation,” Pelosi said. “Some bumps in the road along the way … unfortunately, I think, sinkholes as well. But that doesn’t mean that that road cannot be repaired. I just believe that it must be lengthened.”

Pelosi seemed to suggest in her House floor speech that Fast Track should come after Congress deals with more urgent matters, like climate change and highway fund reauthorization.

How the Oregon/Southwest Washington delegation voted

Democrat Peter DeFazio was the only Oregon House member to vote against the Fast Track and TAA bills. His fellow Democrats Earl Blumenauer, Suzanne Bonamici, and Kurt Schrader, and Republican Greg Walden, all voted for the Fast Track and TAA bills, as did Southwest Washington Republican Jaime Herrera-Beutler. [In the earlier Senate vote, Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) voted against the Fast Track/TAA bill, but Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) and Patty Murray (D-Wash.) voted for it.]


In Congress, Money Talks

Several early June polls show that Fast Track—and the trade deals it would grease the skids for—are unpopular with the public. A poll by New York Times and CBS News showed that 55 percent oppose Fast Track, and an NBC News poll found that 66 percent agree that “protecting American industries and jobs by limiting imports from other countries” is more important than “allowing free trade so you can buy products at low prices no matter what country they come from.”

Given its unpopularity among voters, why is Fast Track even being considered? The answer: It’s popular among corporate political donors. The nonpartisan research group MapLight tallied $198 million in Congressional campaign contributions over the last two years from industry and business groups in favor of fast track, compared to $23 million from labor, civic and business groups opposing it.

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