WASHINGTON (AP) — The Republican-led Congress rounded out President Barack Obama’s trade package Thursday, overwhelmingly passing a worker training program just weeks after it was stymied.
The House voted 286 to 138 to renew the program for workers displaced by international trade. Obama had said he wanted to sign that bill alongside the “fast track” negotiating authority that Congress approved a day earlier.
Usually a Democratic priority, the retraining bill briefly became hostage to Democrats’ failed efforts to block fast track.
The House measure also renews the African Growth and Opportunity Act.
Obama and his trade opponents are shifting their focus to proposed trade agreements under negotiation for years. The first, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, involves the United States, Japan, Canada and nine other Pacific Rim nations.
The fast-track law allows Congress to ratify or reject such agreements, but not change or filibuster them.
The president, in a written statement, said the congressional votes “represent a much-needed win for hardworking American families.”
He also said he will press lawmakers to send him legislation “that will help us crack down on countries that break the rules.” The House and Senate have passed different versions of the measure, and are expected to hold compromise talks next month.
Most House Democrats, along with major labor unions, opposed fast track, saying free-trade pacts send U.S. jobs abroad.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said Thursday’s votes mark “the end of phase one” in the trade debate, but “the fight will continue.” The next step, she said, is “to shine a sharp, clear, bright light” on details of the Pacific-rim proposal.
Passage of the trade bills mark a huge win for the president, and one paradoxically spearheaded by Republicans. And it’s a defeat for the AFL-CIO and unions and environmental groups that fiercely opposed it. Some have vowed to punish the relatively small number of congressional Democrats who opposed them.
But Obama – much like the last Democratic president, Bill Clinton – portrays expanded trade as crucial in a global, high-tech economy. Most Republicans agree, but most congressional Democrats, especially in the House, do not.
Trade has opened the most striking breach between a Democratic president and the lawmakers who overwhelmingly backed him on health care and other hard-fought issues.
Pelosi and fellow House Democrats dealt Obama a humiliating rebuke on June 12, when they derailed his trade package only hours after he traveled to the Capitol to personally ask for their help. The House voted 302-126 that day to reject the job retraining portion of the package. Nearly half the “no” votes came from Democrats.
Republican leaders, with White House support, restructured the legislative package and passed fast track with big GOP margins, plus modest Democratic support.
On Thursday, only six House Democrats voted against the job retraining program. Among Republicans, 132 voted against the program, and 111 voted for it.
Rep. Paul Ryan, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, said some Democrats had questioned Republicans’ promises to support the job retraining program even after fast track was secured.
To pass the trade legislation, Ryan, R-Wis., told House colleagues before Thursday’s vote, “We needed a little bit of trust. We are here today to keep our word.”