Obama trade agenda faces tough odds


Af­ter sev­eral near death ex­pe­ri­ences in the Se­nate, the trade agenda that Pres­i­dent Barack Obama is push­ing as a sec­ond term cap­stone faces its big­gest hur­dle yet in the more po­lar­ized House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives.

Anti-trade forces have strug­gled to ig­nite public out­rage over Obama’s bid to en­act new free­trade agree­ments. Demo­cratic op­po­si­tion in Congress to such trade deals re­mains wide­spread.

The out­come may turn on Repub­li­cans’ will­ing­ness to hand the pres­i­dent a ma­jor win in his fi­nal years in of­fice. Un­der­scor­ing the dif­fi­cul­ties, House lead­ers are look­ing at the sec­ond or third week of June to sched­ule a vote, even though House mem­bers re­turn from a hol­i­day re­cess on Mon­day.

“The busi­ness of bill pass­ing is a messy, sausage-mak­ing process. It was in the Se­nate, and it cer­tainly will be in the House,” White House com­mu­ni­ca­tions direc­tor Jen Psaki said in an in­ter­view. “There will be many mo­ments where there will be dif­fi­cult is­sues. We have our eyes wide open with that.”

At is­sue is leg­is­la­tion that would give Obama pa­ram­e­ters for the trade deals he ne­go­ti­ates but also speed up con­gres­sional re­view of the fi­nal agree­ments by giv­ing law­mak­ers the right to ap­prove or

re­ject deals, but not change them.

‘Fast track’

Obama is seek­ing this “fast track” author­ity to com­plete a 12-na­tion Trans-Pa­cific trade deal that spans the Pa­cific rim from Chile to Viet­nam. He and trade back­ers say it will open huge mar­kets to U.S. goods by low­er­ing tar­iffs and other trade bar­ri­ers. Crit­ics, la­bor and en­vi­ron­men­tal groups in par­tic­u­lar, ar­gue that new trade agree­ments will cost jobs and that past agree­ments have not lived up to la­bor and en­vi­ron­men­tal stan­dards.

Sup­port­ers and op­po­nents of fast track count about 20 House Democrats in fa­vor with fewer than a dozen still on the fence. Pro­po­nents of the bill say they need at least 25 Democrats and prefer­ably closer to 30 to counter the 40 to 50 Repub­li­cans who are ex­pected to vote against it in the Repub­li­can-con­trolled House.

The f ast- track l eg­is­la­tion squeezed through the Se­nate, cou­pled with a pack­age of fed­eral as­sis­tance for work­ers dis­placed by free trade agree­ments that helped se­cure Demo­cratic votes. That aid mea­sure, called Trade Ad­just­ment As­sis­tance, has emerged as a par­tic­u­larly tricky com­po­nent be­cause it’s a pri­or­ity for Democrats, but many Repub­li­cans op­pose it and in­sist on pub­licly vot­ing against it.

One House lead­er­ship op­tion is to “divide the ques­tion” on the Se­nate-passed bill. That would al­low sep­a­rate votes on fast-track and TAA.

Pre­sum­ably an over­whelm­ing num­ber of Repub­li­cans, and just enough Democrats, would vote for fast-track. And TAA would pass with heavy Demo­cratic sup­port and enough help from Republi- cans. That would ul­ti­mately leave the Se­nate bill in­tact and clear the way for Obama’s sig­na­ture.

Some Democrats, how­ever, have raised the pos­si­bil­ity of vot­ing heav­ily against TAA to sab­o­tage their main tar­get, fast track. And many are un­happy that the as­sis­tance pack­age would be partly funded by cuts in the growth of the Medi­care pro­gram pro­vid­ing health care cov­er­age to the el­derly.

“There’s a lot of un­ease in the Demo­cratic cau­cus — and ex­plicit op­po­si­tion — to Congress pay­ing for trade ad­just­ment as­sis­tance with Medi­care sav­ings,” Bill Sa­muel, the leg­isla­tive direc­tor for the AFL-CIO trade union fed­er­a­tion, said in an in­ter­view. “If Repub­li­cans are count­ing on Democrats to put it over the top, they may not be right about that.”

If the trade as­sis­tance mea­sure sur­vives, the fast-track mea­sure would still be in jeop­ardy.

“There’s over­whelm­ing op­po­si­tion in the Demo­cratic cau­cus,” Demo­cratic Rep. Rosa DeLauro, a lead­ing op­po­nent of Obama’s trade bill, said in an in­ter­view. Repub­li­can lead­ers “are in a bind,” she said. “If they had the votes, they’d be mov­ing.”

At the White House, of­fi­cials say Obama might rely less on the public speeches and high-pro­file in­ter­views that char­ac­ter­ized the drive to­ward the Se­nate vote and fo­cus more on tar­geted lob­by­ing to re­tain Demo­cratic sup­port­ers and win over any re­main­ing fence sit­ters.

The White House has been es­pe­cially im­pressed by the ef­forts of House Ways and Means Chair­man Paul Ryan, a Repub­li­can who has worked to per­suade con­ser­va­tives who are re­luc­tant to give a Demo­cratic pres­i­dent fast track author­ity. Ryan has writ­ten opin­ion pieces with Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, a dar­ling of the con­ser­va­tive move­ment, in sup­port of trade and has courted other con­ser­va­tive lead­ers to back fast track.

On the Demo­cratic side, la­bor has made op­po­si­tion to free trade deals a pri­or­ity, and the AFL-CIO has frozen its po­lit­i­cal ac­tion com­mit­tee con­tri­bu­tions to law­mak­ers un­til af­ter the trade votes. Dur­ing the Me­mo­rial Day con­gres­sional re­cess, a coali­tion of fast track op­po­nents aired ads in 17 Demo­cratic con­gres­sional dis­tricts crit­i­ciz­ing the leg­is­la­tion and call­ing for its de­feat.

But those ef­forts are run­ning up against a more mud­dled public view of trade. A re­cent Pew Re­search Cen­ter poll found that 58 per­cent of those sur­veyed, in­clud­ing a ma­jor­ity of Democrats, say free trade agree­ments have been good for the U.S. More­over, when Pew asked Amer­i­cans to list their top pri­or­i­ties for the pres­i­dent and Congress this year, global trade ranked 23rd.

“The peo­ple who don’t nor­mally pay at­ten­tion to cam­paigns prob­a­bly aren’t go­ing to be show­ing up to vote on this,” con­ceded Ja­son Stan­ford of the Coali­tion to Stop Fast Track. “But what is im­por­tant for th­ese mem­bers to note is that the same peo­ple who were knock­ing on doors for them last time are op­pos­ing this now. They are turn­ing that im­por­tant base of sup­port into a re­ally ded­i­cated op­po­si­tion. And that’s not how any­one wants to run for re-elec­tion.”

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