In a reversal of political roles, House Republicans on Thursday called on Congress to give more power to President Barack Obama to get new trade deals passed while Democrats warned it would be a mistake to grant the White House too much authority.
“This is a strange world we’re in these days,” said Republican Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee.
After Ryan angered Democrats by refusing to allow a vote on their alternative proposal, the panel appeared ready to approve Obama’s request for fast-track trade-promotion authority. A final vote was expected later in the day.
Democratic Rep. Jim McDermott of Washington state took note of the irony in an exchange with Ryan.
“The Republican Party has never given the president what he wanted,” he said. “And you are giving not only him this power, but you’re giving it to the next president. Perhaps it will be Mrs. Clinton. She’ll have two terms of free-trade fast-track.”
The Senate Finance Committee approved a similar plan Wednesday night. It would bar Congress from changing a trade pact after it’s negotiated, forcing members to only take an up-or-down vote.
Ryan, the Republican Party’s vice presidential candidate in 2012, said he was having “an out-of-body experience” as he defended the president’s plan when it came under fierce attack from Democrats. Ryan is the lead sponsor of the legislation in the House.
Rep. Sander Levin of Michigan, the panel’s top Democrat, said Congress should not settle for “vague negotiating objectives” as Obama and his advisers try to finalize the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a proposed 12-nation pact that would set new trade rules for 40 percent of the world’s economy.
“Unfortunately, the negotiations are not on the right track,” said Levin.
Fast-track supporters say Congress should not meddle in the details, setting only the broad goals for trade negotiations but leaving the specifics to the executive branch.
Ryan said that the U.S. needs to present foreign countries “a united front” on trade issues and that giving Obama trade-promotion authority would give the U.S. a boost in getting trade pacts approved.
“Our trading partners will know we’re trustworthy,” he said. “Our rivals will know we’re serious.”
Levin argued that it would be a mistake for Congress to take a back seat in the process and to give the administration “a free hand” in negotiating trade pacts.
“We’ve giving up this leverage, and essentially we’re left with yes or no at the end,” Levin said.
Ryan and Levin sparred when the chairman ruled that no vote would be allowed on a Democratic alternative because he said some of the language fell outside of the committee’s jurisdiction.
“I don’t think the American public will accept this,” Levin said.
The Democratic proposal called for giving the Obama administration more specific instructions as it carries out trade negotiations.
As an example, Levin said, his bill would have Congress give its guidance on how to sell more U.S. cars in Japan rather than settle for language in Ryan’s fast-track bill, which calls only for the United States to “expand competitive market opportunities” for exports.
Opponents of the fast-track bill said that past trade deals have done nothing to help working families.
“I want to make people aware that the working people of the country have not benefited from free trade,” McDermott said. “Their wages are stagnant. … That’s why they don’t trust this stuff. That’s why they’re angry.”
Obama defended his plan in a speech to a group of supporters at Organizing for Action, the president’s political arm, at a hotel in Washington.
“When people say this trade deal is bad for working families, they don’t know what they’re talking about,” Obama said. “I take that personally.”
The legislation could be on the House and Senate floors as soon as next week.
Some complained that the House and Senate were moving too quickly on their fast-track bills.
“If it’s not high-speed rail, it’s close to it,” said Texas Democratic Rep. Lloyd Doggett.
Similar complaints surfaced in the Senate on Wednesday, prompting Sen. Bernie Sanders, a Vermont independent, to invoke a little-used rule to delay by a few hours a meeting of the Finance Committee.
At Thursday’s hearing, some House members noted that the fast-track bills were just introduced late last week.
“We’re getting a lot thrown at us at the last minute,” said Democratic Rep. Earl Blumenauer of Oregon.