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Congress Tries Again to Advance Trade Legislation

Friday, June 19, 2015
Sandler, Travis & Rosenberg Trade Report

Four trade and customs bills could still be approved by Congress before the Fourth of July holiday after House leaders used a change in tactics to overcome a setback suffered last week. Attention now turns back to the Senate, where the outcome remains unclear.

In late May the Senate approved a bill reauthorizing both trade promotion authority, which would allow the president to negotiate international trade agreements that lawmakers could approve or reject but not amend, and the Trade Adjustment Assistance program, which aids workers who lose their jobs due to trade. House leaders then opted to hold separate votes on TPA and TAA rather than the bill as a whole, and while TPA was narrowly approved, TAA was soundly rejected, leaving both in limbo.

House leaders initially responded by securing a rule that would have allowed the House to vote on TAA again at any time before July 30, when the month-long congressional summer recess begins. However, once it became clear that this strategy was not likely to result in approval, the choice was made to de-link TPA and TAA and add TPA to an unrelated bill, which the House then passed June 18 by a 218-208 vote. That bill will now go to the Senate, which is expected to consider it during the week of June 22. The primary question seems to be whether the Senate Democrats who voted for TPA when it was part of a single bill with TAA will approve it again as a standalone bill.

Speaker of the House John Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell sought to assuage concerns that TAA could be abandoned if TPA advances separately by issuing a joint statement asserting their commitment to ensuring that “both TPA and TAA get votes in the House and Senate and are sent to the president for signature.” TAA is generally expected to be added to a measure reauthorizing the Generalized System of Preferences, the African Growth and Opportunity Act and trade preferences for Haiti, which ostensibly would be easily approved by the Senate and then the House. Supporters are hoping that this combined bill, along with the TPA legislation, could be approved by the House and Senate before lawmakers break for the Fourth of July recess. President Obama has made clear that while he prefers to sign both, he will not delay action on TPA if for some reason Congress does not approve TAA.

Boehner and McConnell also expressed their intent to “have a conference on the customs [reauthorization] bill and complete that in a timely manner so that the president can sign it into law.” The House and Senate versions of this legislation are largely similar but contain some key differences that will have to be resolved. Lawmakers are not expected to vote on a final conference report on this legislation until later in July.

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