GOP plots new approach to trade bill

Willie Grace | 6/17/2015, 9:02 a.m.
House Speaker John Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell met Tuesday to discuss how to advance a package of ...
President Barack Obama

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Republican leaders on Capitol Hill are hoping they have a way to pass President Barack Obama's stalled free trade package by overcoming opposition from his own party.

It's unclear whether it will work, but GOP sources say they are considering a plan that would pass without the sweeteners designed to attract recalcitrant Democrats.

House Speaker John Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell met Tuesday to discuss how to advance a package of trade bills that Republicans largely support, even as Obama's own party rebukes him.

The plan to attract some Democratic support collapsed late last week and leaders are now looking for a procedural out that would push the measure through.

Obama has spoken by phone with both Boehner and McConnell this week, and both said they're looking for ways to grant the President the authority that U.S. negotiators say is crucial to completing the massive Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement.

"It's still my hope that we can achieve what we set out to achieve together, which is to get a six-year trade promotion authority bill in place," McConnell said on the Senate floor on Tuesday.

Boehner told reporters Tuesday that "we're committed to getting TPA done as soon as possible."

The leading option for Boehner and GOP leaders, according to a senior House Republican leadership aide: They'd hold a vote on "fast-track" trade promotion authority legislation, sending that to the Senate alone instead of coupling it with assistance for displaced workers -- a program Democrats typically support, but that the party's House members rejected last week in order to stymie the broader trade package.

Once in the Senate, the fast-track authority measure would need 60 votes to pass. That's a heavy lift that the Senate may not accomplish thanks to wavering Democratic support. A previous vote on the issue only passed with 62 votes in May, and if there's continued pressure from the likes of Sen. Elizabeth Warren -- and even Hillary Clinton -- it could be tough to pull off again.

But the GOP figures this may be only way to get around the wall of opposition from House Democrats.

If the Senate could pass the first bill, it would amend the Trade Adjustment Assistance program back into a separate, more broadly supported bill that extends several popular trade preferences laws.

It's a bet that the Senate could more easily overcome Democratic resistance than the House could.

The calculus: Senate Republicans would try to ease the concerns of pro-trade Democrats, and keep the Democrats from filibustering, by passing both bills.

Then, the House -- which already has the votes to pass trade promotion authority as a stand-alone bill -- could pass that bill first, giving Democrats there little incentive to oppose the second bill.

Pelosi, though, signaled Tuesday in an interview with CNBC that Democrats are not about to relent in their push to kill trade promotion authority through any procedural means possible -- saying she doesn't consider that authority necessary to getting the Trans-Pacific Partnership done.