(This is an updated version of a piece that first appeared here. Comments in [square brackets] indicate latest changes.)
As you may know, the Fast Track legislation needed to force TPP, the next NAFTA-style trade deal, through the Congress has passed in the Senate. (Fast Track is officially called "Trade Promotion Authority" or TPA. There are way too many acronyms in this part of the world, as you'll soon see.)
If Fast Track becomes law, TPP will be almost impossible to stop, since Fast Track gives the current president and the next one the right to "fast track" through Congress anything she or he calls a "trade deal" — no legislative delays, no filibuster, no amendments, little time for debate. Just an up or down vote with the clock ticking.
If Fast Track fails, you'll never hear of TPP again, or read its language. TPP is a secret now — which should tell you how toxic it is — and if it never gets introduced, it will stay a secret. (Even if it does get introduced, it will stay a secret from anyone who isn't in Congress and from any staffer without a sufficient security clearance. Yes, you read that correctly.)
After several near death experiences in the Senate, the trade agenda that President Barack Obama is pushing as a second term capstone faces its biggest hurdle yet in the more polarized House.
Anti-trade forces [sic] have struggled to ignite public outrage over Obama's bid to enact new free-trade agreements, but Democratic opposition in Congress remains widespread.
The outcome may turn on Republicans' willingness to hand the president a major win in his final years in office. Underscoring the difficulties, House leaders are looking at the second or third week of June to schedule a vote, even though House members return from recess on Monday.
Did you note the phrase "anti-trade forces" in the second paragraph? That tells you the AP is in the tank for TPP. No one on the anti-TPP side is "anti-trade" — this is Obama administration spin and nothing else. And yes, there is widespread public outrage, despite some misleading polls out lately. The misinterpretation of those polls is Obama spin also.
▪ There aren't enough votes in the House to pass Fast Track. [Update: Alan Grayson names 18 Democrats, with phone numbers (!), as perps in a letter to his list. Obama is claiming he has 20 Democratic votes in a piece in The Hill. See this article for Democrats that Obama is "wooing." With 20 Democratic Yes votes, Republicans still need fewer than 47 or 48 defections.]
The delay in the vote tells you all you need to know. They don't have enough Yes votes in the House. So let's look at the numbers.
There are 433 members in the House of Representatives at the moment — 245 Republicans and 188 Democrats and two vacancies — so it takes 217 members to pass a bill. I've heard that the number of Democratic Yes votes is as low as 17 (NY Times); "about 20" (AP again); or "more than 20 votes, possibly 25 or 27" (via some trade publications). We know for sure that 17 Democrats announced they will vote Yes. The number of on-the-fence Democrats is either as low as seven (NY Times); no higher than a "dozen" (AP); or "dozens" (The Hill). I think the lower number is more accurate.
Press reports put Republican No votes at "40 to 50" (AP, same link), but I've heard that the number could be as high as 70. Democrats friendly to the White House are working hard to move their members, but Pelosi is reportedly not helping (see below). Republicans are also working on their members, and there's a separate "whip" operation just for this bill, so the numbers could obviously change.
One group to watch on the Republican side is Heritage Action, which is strongly opposed to the trade assistance bill, TAA, described below, as an "egregiously ineffective welfare program." Heritage Action could "peel off 10-15 Republican votes" if it whips strongly (a proprietary trade publication).
Despite these unknowns, we can still do the math. They have at least 17 Democratic Yes votes, but they don't have enough Republicans to pass TPA. This means the number of Republican No votes is greater than 45, at least at the moment, and again, could be as high as 70.
Bottom line — However many Democratic votes they need, they don't have them. When Obama and Boehner have the numbers to pass TPA, they'll vote before you could blink. They're not voting. If there really are at least seven Democrats on the fence or secretly in favor, that makes 24 Democratic votes — which they don't have. That logic puts the Republican No votes at 52 or more.
▪ Pelosi told Boehner she won't help him find the votes.
[Update: But maybe the Times piece is spin. Later reports say Pelosi is a TPP enabler — a perp — she may organize a Yes vote while voting No herself(!). Her phone number: (202) 225-4965. I'll return to this.]
This is from the same NY Times article linked above (my emphasis):
Only 17 Democrats out of 188 have come out in favor of so-called fast-track authority — and many of them are being hounded by labor and environmental groups to change their minds. Opponents of the trade deal say just seven Democrats remain truly undecided.
Representative Nancy Pelosi of California, the minority leader, who has yet to declare her position, has told House Speaker John A. Boehner of Ohio that he will have to produce 200 Republican votes to win the 217 he needs. In other words, she is not promising a single new convert.
Three things to note about this. First, Pelosi is relying on the list of announced supporters for her estimate of 17 Democratic Yes votes. As noted, other estimates are higher.
Second, Nancy Pelosi is saying she won't whip for the bill — she won't do anything to convince those seven or more undecided Democrats. Pelosi may still want "a path to yes," as she was quoted earlier as saying (and shame on her for that), but a path to yes at this point means surrender to the President — no currency manipulation provision that has teeth (otherwise Japan won't sign), for example, and no anti-slavery language that has teeth (or Malaysia won't sign).
Third, look at the Republican numbers. If there really are close to 70 No votes on the Republican side, Fast Track is in trouble. With 50 Republican No's, Obama and Boehner need 22 Yes Democrats. With 70 Republican No's, they need 42 Yes Democrats. It may be that the number of Yes Democrats is fixed by now, so it's up to the Republicans. However many Yes Republicans they need, they don't have them yet.
If you live in a purple district with a Republican representative, call now and often, and say "Fast Track will determine my 2016 vote." House phone numbers here.
Every member of the House will be up for election in 2016. The results this November could change the electoral fortunes of a great many members of both parties, turning a quite a few into lobbyists. (Could DC absorb that many lobbyists in one cycle? We may find out.)
▪ The deal could come apart in other ways as well.
One is strong currency manipulation language, another is the way Medicare is currently used to pay for "trade assistance" benefits for workers who need retraining and other help. Trade assistance is handled in a separate bill, called TAA, which is currently tied to the Fast Track, or TPA, bill. (See what I mean about acronyms?) The trade assistance bill is itself a poison pill for many Republicans, who hate anything to do with worker compensation or assistance.
And then there's the "slavery" issue that Obama and Boehner need to ignore in order to get the Malaysians to sign TPP. (For a look at why, see here.) As Dayen pointed out on Virtually Speaking, if weak anti-slavery language passes this Congress, it would be the first time a slavery compromise was passed since the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854. Another feather in the legacy cap of the first black president? The irony writes itself.
According to some publications, four bills will move in tandem through the House — Fast Track, TAA and two side bills — to address these concerns. The bill's supporters are looking for a way to let House members vote for something that looks like their conscience, while not letting those other votes have any real effect on Fast Track itself. How all that will work is anyone's guess at the moment.
The proponents' bottom line is simple — make sure the only bill Obama cares about, Fast Track, comes out of the House with the same language that it entered with, thus avoiding a conference with the Senate and a second House vote. Everything else is window dressing and conscience balm for House members as they vote to enable or disable the next NAFTA.
▪ The clock is ticking.
Though the goal is simple, the maneuvering is complicated, and the clock is ticking. This can't drag out forever. Can a trade bill pass in an election year? Will our trade "partners" lose faith in Obama and walk away?
The end of July might be the deadline for Obama’s top legislative priority. When lawmakers return to Washington after the August recess, the presidential election will have heated up, and it could be impossible politically to navigate the trade debate.
This is as interesting as Congress has been in a while, unless you look at the "NAFTA on steroids" scale of suffering that TPP will cause. Then it's not interesting at all; just an exercise in consciencelessness. Stay tuned.