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Medicare Dispute Could Derail Friday Trade Votes

Ryan remains confident about the trade deal. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Ryan remains confident about the trade deal. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

A lingering dispute over language regarding Medicare cuts could delay House Republican leaders’ plan to put a package of four trade bills related to Trade Promotion Authority on the floor Friday.  

Democrats are balking at the Medicare language embedded in the Trade Adjustment Assistance bill, which would help retrain American workers displaced by trade agreements. It’s one part of the trade package supported by President Barack Obama and most Republicans, as well as a crucial handful of pro-trade Democrats. Included in the package is a bill to extend an existing African trade agreement and a bill to bolster U.S. border security. If approved, the TPA package would clear the way for the president to negotiate a 12-nation Pacific trade deal.  

TAA is lumped together with the TPA and is expected to come to the House floor under a rule that allows separate votes. The rule requires each bill to pass. If TAA fails, the whole package fails.  

Republicans were confident Wednesday, despite the Medicare snag.  

House Ways and Means Chairman Paul D. Ryan, R-Wis., has been leading efforts to secure support for TPA, talking to undecided Republicans and, according to sources in the conference, flipping members who were leaning against the package.  

At a “Conservatives for TPA” event on Capitol Hill, Ryan said, “We feel good about where we are.”  

Still, it was clear Wednesday the vote-counting focus had shifted from TPA to the underlying TAA. In the original TAA bill passed by the Senate, the retraining programs were paid for with sequester cuts to Medicare. House Republican leaders agreed to find a different offset to appease revolting Democrats, and they did, achieving savings through “strengthening Federal tax compliance laws.”  

The problem is that to avoid having to send TAA back to the Senate, they left the original language intact and put the new pay-for in the African trade bill.  

Leaders of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, who have been whipping against the TAA’s Medicare language, aren’t satisfied, calling it “a bait-and-switch.”  

“There’s no guarantee the Senate will pass the separate bill removing Medicare cuts,” said CPC Co-Chairmen Raúl M. Grijlava, D-Ariz., and Keith Ellison, D-Minn. “If Chairman Ryan recognizes the need to protect seniors from these cuts in separate legislation, why not remove the cuts completely?”

Conventional wisdom has always held that while Republicans would carry TPA, Democrats would need to champion TAA (many Republicans call it tantamount to welfare). With the CPC whipping “no” and House Democratic leaders early Wednesday morning generally encouraging opposition, it was unclear Wednesday whether TAA could pass.

GOP leadership aides said it would be foolish for Democrats to grandstand on TAA, given the pay-for disagreement is addressed. But Rep. Tim Huelskamp, R-Kan., who plans to vote with leadership for TPA but knows how to cause mischief for his party, suggested Democrats should use TAA to paint Republicans into a corner.  

He told CQ Roll Call Tuesday the “smart Democrat vote” would be to vote against TAA and make sure a compromise package doesn’t come together.  

“Somebody noted in there, ‘Why would Democrats support TAA knowing that that’s the only way it passes?’” he said.

As the Rules Committee met to set parameters for floor debate, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Speaker John A. Boehner were discussing next steps to prevent a full meltdown.

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