Keeping Score on the Colombia Trade Pact
The House voted today to "stop the clock" on the Colombia free trade agreement, passing a rule change allowing the chamber to ignore the traditional 90-day timeframe under which Congress must vote on trade bills.
The 224-195 vote in favor of the rule change broke down mostly along party lines, with just 10 Democrats voting no and six Republicans voting yes. Such partisan unity is to be expected on a procedural vote, but this one was different -- it was "scored."
What does scoring a bill mean? A variety of lobbying groups issue congressional scorecards on the topics that interest them most. The League of Conservation Voters rates members for their votes on key environmental bills, the Family Research Council scores votes on abortion and other social issues, and so on.
In the case of today's Colombia vote, the roll call was scored -- after an encouraging nudge from Hill Republicans -- by dozens of pro-trade and pro-business groups, including heavyweights like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers. That's bad news for many moderate and conservative Democrats, who had to weigh their desires to maintain a good rating from these groups against the importance of backing Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) on a key issue. Members are typically given a relatively free pass to vote how they want on trade bills, but on procedural votes, leaders want them to toe the line.
All 10 of the Democrats who voted against today's rule change are members of the moderate New Democrats or the conservative Blue Dogs, and many face competitive re-election races in November. Blue Dog Rep. Melissa Bean, for example, represents a GOP-leaning Illinois district and has been buffeted by both sides of the free trade debate since she was elected in 2004. Bean received an 80 percent score from the Chamber of Commerce in the second session of the 109th Congress, higher than the vast majority of Democrats. She voted no today on the Colombia rule change.
Rep. John Tanner (Tenn.), a leader of the Blue Dogs who has spoken favorably of the Colombia deal, managed to split the difference today -- he voted "present."
But plenty of moderate and conservative Democrats chose to back Pelosi, even some who might vote for the Colombia trade deal when (or if) it comes to a vote. Rep. Artur Davis (Ala.), a New Democrat who hasn't decided whether he supports the agreement, described the fight over the 90-day clock as a dispute about "congressional prerogatives" rather than the actual merits of the Colombia deal. To him and other Democrats, President Bush threw precedent out the window when he decided to submit the bill even after Pelosi had advised against it.
"I think it's an egregious error by the White House to bypass the Speaker of the House," Davis said.
For their part, Hill Republicans say that it's a ruse to label today's vote a procedural one.
"Anyone who thinks this is just going to put the [Colombia] vote off for a couple of months, that is nonsense," said House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio). "This is a vote to kill the bill."
No matter what happens on the Colombia deal, business groups had larger reasons to worry about today's vote. Changing fast-track procedures on this one bill could set a precedent for future trade deals, and they may have an even tougher time under a President Barack Obama or Hillary Rodham Clinton.
"We're going to re-think the whole concept of fast track in a Democratic administration," Davis said.
No wonder the business community is keeping score.
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