Things will be different in Washington, D.C., this year, but there appears to be only a small, glimmering light of hope on trade to reflect any serious change in the political posturing.
2015 already is shaping up to be a year of veto threats from President Barack Obama and a push by the Republican Congress to override him while simultaneously dialing back his executive orders.
Despite six years of rancor, Obama has issued only two actual vetoes in his presidency, the lowest number from a president since President Warren Harding, whose presidency was less than two years. Nonetheless, the White House has issued at least seven veto threats just in the past two weeks, but he faces a Congress determined to call him out on those threats.
One of the few areas Republicans and the president could reach some early agreement is trade. The White House is aggressively pushing to close a trade deal in the Pacific that would be considered the largest trade deal for the U.S. since the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1994. The administration wants Trade Promotion Authority from Congress to make it easier to complete a deal.
The White House will have to rely heavily on business groups to sell the trade deal and win votes in Congress. By the same token, the White House will be looking for Congress to reverse course on Cuba, which could be a harder sell given the number of congressional Republicans seeking to run for president.
Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, said Jan. 20 he plans “to move carefully but quickly to introduce and mark up a TPA bill.” Hatch will work with his committee ranking member, Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., as well as Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, to consider possible improvements to TPA.
Some traditional backers of the president’s agenda won’t be on-board with the Trans-Pacific Partnership or giving the president Trade Promotion Authority to close the deal. Roger Johnson, president of the National Farmers Union, said his group is lining up against Trade Promotion Authority and the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
“It’s interesting because up until a month ago, the administration’s position was we don’t need TPA. We don’t want it. Obama kind of ran against it. The argument was, ‘We’ll bring you a really good agreement and then you can vote on it.’ That argument sort of changed about a month ago. Now, suddenly they are saying they really want fast track.'”
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack turned to the American Farm Bureau Federation earlier this month to make his pitch on trade. During a two-day visit to the AFBF annual convention, the secretary talked frequently about the White House trade agenda. He said agriculture “has a job to do” in convincing people that trade is positive. Too many people believe trade costs jobs, he said.
“The facts are that trade creates jobs,” Vilsack said. “The facts are that we have seen a significant expansion of agricultural opportunities because of free-trade agreements, but in the minds of a lot of Americans, they equate plant closings and plants moving to other countries with free trade. So we have got to do a better job of showing that trade does create jobs.”
Johnson thinks if TPA doesn’t move quickly, then it’s likely because the legislation is in trouble. He said everyone has a different view on whether Republicans would muster support to back a trade agenda offered by President Obama considering the GOP and president have been at loggerheads for six years now. Moreover, how many Democrats can Obama get to pass a trade deal when unions and environmental groups oppose the Pacific agreement?
“It’s all a matter of trying to figure out what this Congress is going to do, and there are all different schools of thought about what to expect,” Johnson said.
WHO BLINKS FIRST?
Beyond trade, everything else between the president and Congress appears to be a contest of who blinks first. The two sides are moving opposite directions in areas such as tax reform, infrastructure funding and immigration.
Farm groups expect Congress to dial back some of the regulatory agenda, particularly on environmental issues. Farm Bureau made the case at its annual meeting that the group wants Congress to end the EPA effort to redefine waters of the U.S.
American Farm Bureau Federation President Bob Stallman said his group’s emphasis on the waters of the U.S. rule is to turn to Congress for help. “Our goal is to get legislation passed in Congress to stop it,” he said at AFBF’s annual meeting.
Sen. John Thune of South Dakota was one of several Republicans who wants to rollback of EPA rules on energy, such as air emissions. “The Obama Environmental Protection Agency has proposed regulations that would drive Americans’ energy prices through the roof and result in the loss of tens of thousands of American jobs,” Thune said.
Republicans view the White House delays on the Keystone XL pipeline as another example of regulatory overreach. Thus, one of their first moves is put a bill requiring federal agencies to issue permits for the project. “President Obama has been delaying this bipartisan infrastructure project for years, even though many members of his party, unions, and a strong majority of Americans support it,” said Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst in her response to the president’s State of the Union speech Tuesday night. “The president’s own State Department has said Keystone’s construction could support thousands of jobs and pump billions into our economy, and do it with minimal environmental impact.”
On Obamacare, Republicans plan to highlight the tax costs and impact on small business. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce wants to re-establish 40 hours as the definition of a workweek for requiring companies to offer insurance to workers. The group also wants to repeal some taxes under the Affordable Care Act. Ernst and other Republicans also have reiterated their plans to again attempt to repeal the law. Ernst told Iowa reporters on Wednesday about a farmer who saw his old policy cancelled and premiums doubled after finding a new policy.
“Yes, there may be more Americans covered by insurance,” Ernst said. “It’s certainly not affordable. One thing I think we need to work on together is finding a replacement for Obamacare.”
IMMIGRATION: AS WIDE APART AS EVER
On immigration, the early votes and moves in the House show Congress and the White House remain as wide apart as ever on immigration. A battle soon looms over continued funding for the Department of Homeland Security. The department faces a potential budget shutdown in late February, and House Republicans have already voted in a funding bill to strip away the president’s executive orders allowing young illegal immigrants to gain legal status. The Senate, even under Republican control, appears caught between the House and the president. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., vowed he isn’t going to let the DHS go without funding.
One area where something has to give will be country-of-origin labeling. In February, the World Trade Organization will hear the U.S. appeal. A ruling will be expected sometime later in the spring, but Congress will expect some possible changes from Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack in early May. Vilsack has already indicated he doesn’t know how to get around the animal-segregation issue that Canada and Mexico used to challenge the current rule on COOL.
Stallman made a critical point at his group’s annual meeting that anything — trade, regulatory or otherwise — had better come early this year because presidential politics will heat up quickly this fall.