WASHINGTON U.S. lawmakers on Tuesday extended until late July a deadline for a second vote on legislation central to President Barack Obama's Pacific Rim trade pact, giving supporters time to obtain more backing for it.
At the same time, further delays will squeeze the time frame for Obama to hammer out the 12-nation pact, a signature project that was dealt a major setback in the House of Representatives last week by the president's own Democrats.
As expected after last week's drama, the House voted 236 to 189 to extend until July 30 a deadline for a second vote on a federal program that supports workers hurt by trade. An initial vote on it failed on Friday, causing lawmakers to consider the option of cutting that program out of the trade bill altogether.
In that vote, many Democrats opposed the worker aid program as a way to block a companion measure to streamline the passage of trade deals through the U.S. Congress. Even though the second measure was approved, its progress was blocked by the failure of the worker aid program.
That threw plans for a swift completion of Obama's Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP, into disarray, forcing him and Republican leaders, who also support the trade pact, to search for a new path ahead.
"We're looking for a way forward and when we find one we will let you know," House Speaker John Boehner, a Republican, told reporters before the vote.
Republican Senator John Thune said delays were not helping the TPP, which must get past Congress this year to avoid being bogged down in the U.S. 2016 presidential elections.
"The longer this hangs out there, the harder it becomes and the more it complicates passage of TPP,” Thune told reporters.
Democrats opposed the worker aid program because its approval would ease the passage of "fast-track," which would allow lawmakers to set negotiating objectives for trade deals but restrict them to a yes-or-no vote on the final agreement. Many Democrats and their labor union allies fear that trade deals such as TPP will cause the loss of American jobs.
One possibility would be to drop the worker aid program and send to the Senate, which has already approved both measures, a bill containing only fast-track provisions.
Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch said he was open to any solution that would get the trade package done. "We’re ultimately going to get it through," he said.
(Additional reporting by Richard Cowan and Alex Wilts; Editing by Kevin Drawbaugh and Steve Orlofsky)