Trade Legislation: What Happens Next?

By Scott Miller

Source: Krossbow's flickr photostream, used under a creative commons license.

Source: Krossbow’s flickr photostream, used under a creative commons license.

Concluding the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) is a key priority for the Obama administration. TPP has long been viewed as a critical component of U.S. economic engagement with the Asia Pacific and is the central element of the administration’s Asia rebalance. The president needs trade promotion authority (TPA) from Congress to close out the TPP talks: TPA assures our trading partners that the Congress will consider TPP implementing legislation in a timely manner and without amendment.

The Congress has been steadily advancing trade legislation this spring. House and Senate Committees approved bills in April, and the Senate approved amended versions of the bills in May. Last Friday, the House of Representatives acted on the bills, but the result was somewhat confusing.

Here’s my best guess about the path forward.

Trade legislation had been developed in four pieces:  TPA, trade adjustment assistance (TAA), a bill to renew trade preferences, and a bill concerned with customs and enforcement.  All four components passed the Senate last month, with TPA and TAA combined in a single bill. On Friday, the House passed the preferences bill in a different form than the one that passed the Senate 99-1. What changed was the mechanism for funding TAA (the “pay-for”). Because of the change, this bill goes back to the Senate, likely to be held at the desk until the House finishes work on TAA one way or the other.  The customs bill also passed the House on Friday, but because it contains a number of substantive differences from the Senate-passed bill, it will go to a House-Senate Conference Committee which will resolve the differences and return it to both chambers..

TPA and TAA were combined into a single bill by the Senate (H.R. 1314). The House took up H.R. 1314 under a rule which required separate votes on the two components; and, as we saw on Friday, the TAA component failed 126-302 while TPA passed 219-211. After the votes, the Speaker introduced a Motion to reconsider, which is where the House left the matter.

When the House re-convenes tomorrow, the Speaker’s motion will be considered. If the motion passes, the House will essentially try a “do-over” on TAA. If the do-over passes, Humpty-Dumpty is back together again: H.R. 1314 goes to the president, the Senate concurs with the change to the Preferences bill, and we’re done (except for the Customs bill conference, which was expected). While this route is procedurally simple, it is a major political challenge—about 100 Members would have to change their votes on TAA.

In the event the TAA re-vote fails, the House would have three options:

  1.  Disagree with the Senate amendments to H.R. 1314 and request a Conference (House goes to Conference with TPA, Senate goes with TPA+TAA, and the conferees hash it out). The resulting Conference Report would be privileged in the Senate: while the “motion to proceed” would require 60 votes, the Report would need only 51 votes for final passage.  The House would need 218.
  2. Concur with the TPA portion of H.R. 1314 and send the amended version (TPA only) back to the Senate. This is sometimes known as “ping-pong,” and would force the Senate to act again on the House-amended bill under normal rules.
  3. Take up TPA in a different bill, probably H.R. 1890, Chairman Ryan’s bill as reported out of the Ways & Means Committee.  In this option, the House would need to pass the Ryan bill, and the Senate would need to start over with the Ryan bill in the Finance Committee.

The most positive sign from Friday was that TPA passed the House with 28 Democrats (out of 188) voting “aye” after TAA failed.  In 2001, only 25 Democrats supported TPA, with a Democratic caucus of 211 members. TAA, on the other hand, is at risk of disappearing when current authority expires this fall, despite longstanding support.

Bottomline, Tuesday, June 16, will be another big day for trade legislation and Asia policy.

Mr. Scott Miller is a senior adviser and holds the Scholl Chair in International Business at CSIS.

Scott Miller

Scott Miller

Scott Miller is a senior adviser and holds the Scholl Chair in International Business at CSIS.

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