In an unusual bipartisan effort, top Republican and Democratic vote-counters in the House have joined forces to win approval for a business-backed free trade agreement with Australia.
Majority Whip Rep. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) and Deputy Minority Whip Rep. Joseph Crowley (D-N.Y.) have rallied a coalition of 100 businesses, trade associations and lobbyists to support the trade pact in a House floor vote that is expected to occur soon after the July Fourth recess.
While free-trade agreements often draw support from both sides of the aisle, lawmakers who are leading the coalition say that the degree of bipartisan teamwork on the Australian trade bill is unprecedented.
“At the leadership level, it’s the first time the two sides have come together on bipartisan trade whipping,” said Chris McCannell, Crowley’s chief of staff.
Blunt added, “I’m always looking to find some Democrats who want to work with us, but generally the numbers aren’t in the dozens.”
After getting approval from the Democratic leadership, Crowley joined Blunt and Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) in assembling a bipartisan steering committee for the vote and courting the assistance of business lobbyists who support the pact.
“Usually both camps do their own separate counts — you just sort of keep your own information, then it just gets shared strategically,” said Chuck Brain, the former head of legislative affairs in the Clinton administration who is now a lobbyist with the firm Capitol Hill Strategies. “In this one, Members are working directly with each other, sharing information on a real-time basis rather than at the end.”
The Australian trade agreement was signed on May 18 by U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick and Australian Trade Minister Mark Vaile.
Upon ratification, the agreement would reduce trade barriers on manufactured goods, agriculture, pharmaceuticals, electronic commerce and intellectual property. It would abolish tariffs on 99 percent of industrial and consumer goods traded between the two countries.
On Capitol Hill, about 60 coalition members have attended the two meetings held by the coalition organized by Blunt and Crowley. White House aides and members of the Australian Embassy also have attended the session.
At the meetings, coalition members are encouraged to share intelligence so that the steering committee can focus on their whipping operations and assign lobbyists and advocates to the appropriate lawmakers.
“It is our hope that this bipartisan model becomes the norm for all future free-trade agreements,” according to an agenda for one of the meetings. “When we work together, it is always very rewarding and always successful.”
“At coalition meetings, our goal is [determining] how do you get 218-plus votes,’” said Rogers, who serves as Chief Deputy Whip for coalitions. “This is the way these free-trade agreements should work.”
Free-trade agreements with Chile and Jordan attracted bipartisan support. But bipartisan whipping efforts “just kind of happened” on an ad-hoc basis, said John Kelliher, a Timmons and Co. lobbyist who has participated in the recent sessions. “In this instance, there’s been a more structured, methodological development.”
Australian Embassy spokesman Matt Francis attributed the level of bipartisan cooperation this time to the fact that Australia and the United States have similar business systems.
He added that the Australian Embassy has worked closely with Congress to promote the agreement’s implementation, even sponsoring staff trips to Australia.
“We don’t take anything for granted,” Francis said. “We’ve always worked on the basis that it’s tough to get a trade vote through during an election year.”
Steve Champlin, a lobbyist with the Duberstein Group who oversees the vote count for Democrats, said it makes sense on trade issues for lobbyists to focus their attention on Congress. “The House is most difficult, traditionally, on trade votes,” he said. “The easiest way to build support in the Senate is to get a good House vote.”
Both Crowley’s office and the Republican leadership hinted that the Australia coalition may be a model for future joint-whipping efforts.
“At the first meeting, Mr. Blunt started off by saying this is something he wants to do more often in the future,” McCannell said. “We’ve been full and open with sharing contacts, sharing votes and recommendations. It’s like we’re all kind of doing it together — it’s truly bipartisan, seamless.”
“We love to have this sort of support,” Blunt added. “I think the truth is, you’ve just got to take them one at a time.”