Working closely with the White House, the Republican-controlled House revived President Barack Obama’s trade agenda on Thursday, voting to strengthen his hand in global negotiations and clearing the way for a showdown in the Senate.
The 218-208 vote marked the first step in a bipartisan rescue operation mounted in the week since labor-backed Democrats in the House rebelled against the president and derailed the legislation he seeks. Additionally, a companion bill to provide federal aid for workers harmed by imports awaits action in both houses in the coming days.
“Ninety-five percent of the world’s consumers don’t live in America; they live in other countries,” said Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, Republican point man in the effort to push bipartisan trade bills across the finish line. “And if we want to make more things here and sell them there, then we need to tear down those trade barriers that make them more expensive.”
Democrats fought the legislation, as they have for months, for fear it would lead to the loss of U.S. jobs overseas.
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“Let’s kill this donkey once and for all,” said Rep. Donna Edwards, a Maryland Democrat.
The administration’s immediate negotiating objective is a round of talks involving 12 countries in Asia, North America and South America.
The vote was close but not suspenseful to give Obama the ability to approve trade deals that Congress can accept or reject without changing. A total of 28 Democrats supported the legislation, the same number as on an initial vote last week. Other recent presidents have had the same prerogative Obama seeks, known as “fast track.”
Even so, obstacles remain to completion of a plan that Obama, House Speaker John Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell hope will send two bills to the White House by the end of next week.
Obama has said repeatedly he wants both bills, but his spokesman refused several times to say what the president would do if the trade bill passed and the aid measure was blocked, as House Democrats have indicated they hope to do.
“The president feels very strongly that any strategy that he supports would require both” measures reach his desk, said spokesman Eric Schultz.
The next test comes in the Senate, where support of a dozen or so pro-trade Democrats will be required to approve the stand-alone measure to enhance Obama’s negotiating authority without knowing for certain that the aid for displaced workers will also make it to the president’s desk.
A combined trade aid bill passed earlier on a vote of 62-37, two more than the 60 needed.
One Republican, Sen. Mike Enzi of Wyoming, missed the vote and is a possible supporter.
A second, Sen. Mike Lee of Utah, voted against the bill last month, but that was when it included the worker assistance provisions. A spokesman, Conn Carroll, said Lee has not yet decided how he intends to vote on the stand-alone trade bill.
A total of 14 Democrats supported the measure last month, and the White House is lobbying to prevent slippage.
Supporters of the president’s agenda argue that the United States must stay involved in international trade, in part because otherwise, countries like China will write the rules to their own advantage.
Organized labor and other opponents of international trade deals say they cost thousands of American workers their jobs by shifting employment to foreign countries with low wages, poor working conditions and lax environmental standards.