Democrats deal blow to Obama trade pact

A per­sonal ap­peal by the pres­i­dent fails as House re­jects a key bill to help speed OK of Pa­cific Rim deal.

Los Angeles Times - - FRONT PAGE - By Lisa Mascaro and Don Lee

WASH­ING­TON — Pres­i­dent Obama’s am­bi­tious trade agenda un­rav­eled Fri­day in a stunning set­back de­liv­ered by his own party as the House re­jected an im­por­tant piece of a pack­age aimed at fast-track­ing a con­tro­ver­sial trade pact he is pur­su­ing with 11 other Pa­cific Rim na­tions.

Hop­ing to sal­vage what could be a key part of his le­gacy, Obama dashed to Capitol Hill be­fore the vote Fri­day for a rare early morn­ing meet­ing with Democrats. But amid fears that a trade deal would hurt Amer­i­can work­ers, even Obama’s dra­matic per­sonal in­ter­ven­tion failed to gen­er­ate the Demo­cratic votes needed to bol­ster his un­usual al­liance with pro-trade Repub­li­cans.

The White House dis­missed the vote as a “pro­ce­dural snafu” and vowed to sal­vage the trade leg­is­la­tion when the House votes again next week.

But the un­usual de­feat at the hands of the in­creas­ingly de­fi­ant lib­eral wing of the Demo­cratic Party was seen as a sign of Obama’s wan­ing in­flu­ence as he ap­proaches his fi­nal two years in of­fice.

“This is not about the pres­i­dent,” said Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), the lib­eral stal­wart who led the op­po­si­tion. “It re­ally is all about what [law­mak­ers] heard from their own peo­ple, what they thought was the right thing to do.”

Trade is a ma­jor driver of Cal­i­for­nia’s econ­omy, so the ul­ti­mate out­come of the Pa­cific deal will af­fect many busi­nesses and work­ers in the state. Cal­i­for­nia is home to the na­tion’s busiest ports and a big ex­porter of elec­tron­ics, farm prod­ucts, ma­chin­ery and many other goods and ser­vices — much of that go­ing to Pa­cific Rim coun­tries, in­clud­ing those in­volved in the ne­go­ti­a­tions.

The House vote Fri­day in­cluded two re­lated mea­sures, both of which had to pass in or­der to send the leg­is­la­tion — which was ap­proved last month by the

Se­nate — to the pres­i­dent’s desk.

A bill to give the pres­i­dent fast-track author­ity to ne­go­ti­ate fu­ture trade deals was ap­proved by a 219-211 vote. But an­other mea­sure re­gard­ing as­sis­tance funds to re­train work­ers — a pro­gram typ­i­cally sup­ported by Democrats — failed 126-302 largely be­cause Democrats voted against it.

Be­cause the Se­nate had pre­vi­ously ap­proved both mea­sures as a sin­gle bill, the House’s fail­ure to pass the re­train­ing mea­sure pre­vented the over­all pack­age from ad­vanc­ing. Sup­port­ers plan to hold an­other vote on the re­train­ing bill early next week, giv­ing the White House and con­gres­sional Repub­li­cans an­other chance to drum up votes.

Obama’s push for the leg­is­la­tion was his big­gest lob­by­ing ef­fort since the 2010 pas­sage of the Af­ford­able Care Act. He per­son­ally pressed fel­low Democrats to sup­port the mea­sure in a meet­ing Fri­day morn­ing on Capitol Hill and dur­ing an un­sched­uled ap­pear­ance Thurs­day night at the an­nual con­gres­sional ball­game at the Na­tion­als ball­park.

“Play it straight,” Obama told the House Democrats on Fri­day, urg­ing them in a 20-minute pri­vate talk not to try to de­feat the trade deal by vot­ing against the worker re­train­ing pro­gram. But his mes­sage seemed only to fur­ther divide the party and push lib­eral Democrats to dig in their op­po­si­tion.

“Ba­si­cally, the pres­i­dent tried to both guilt peo­ple and im­pugn their in­tegrity,” said Rep. Pete DeFazio (DOre.). “There were a num­ber of us who were in­sulted by the ap­proach.”

Shortly be­fore the vote, Mi­nor­ity Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-San Fran­cisco), who was caught be­tween sup­port­ing her mem­bers’ op­po­si­tion to the trade deal and not want­ing to em­bar­rass a Demo­cratic pres­i­dent, an­nounced she was vot­ing against the re­train­ing bill as the only way to block the larger trade ac­cord. At that point, the votes be­gan peel- ing away in op­po­si­tion.

Some Democrats said the White House lob­by­ing ef­fort was too lit­tle, too late.

“The shift from the White House and the pres­i­dent was not fast enough,” said Rep. Henry Cuel­lar (DTexas), who sup­ports the bills. “I wish there would have been much bet­ter out­reach.”

It re­mains un­clear if next week’s vote will bring any dif­fer­ent re­sult.

Repub­li­can lead­ers say they are un­likely to sway many more than the 86 GOP law­mak­ers who voted Fri­day in fa­vor of the re­train­ing as­sis­tance pro­gram. Most con­ser­va­tives crit­i­cize the pro­gram as waste­ful gov­ern- ment spend­ing, and Repub­li­cans don’t want their votes to be used against them in a pri­mary chal­lenge.

At the same time, Democrats re­main split. Lib­er­als ap­peared em­bold­ened by their victory, though more mod­er­ate law­mak­ers were con­vinced their col­leagues would come around to sup­port the pres­i­dent. Only 40 Democrats voted for the re­train­ing mea­sure, and 90 more would need to join Repub­li­cans for pas­sage.

In a state­ment af­ter the vote, Obama called upon House mem­bers next week to ap­prove the re­train­ing mea­sure.

“As I’ve said be­fore, new trade agree­ments should go hand in hand with sup­port to Amer­i­can work­ers who’ve been harmed by trade in the past,” Obama said. “I urge the House to pass [the re­train­ing as­sis­tance pro­gram] with­out de­lay so that more mid­dle-class work­ers can earn the chance to par­tic­i­pate and suc­ceed in our global econ­omy.”

The leg­is­la­tion’s key com­po­nent, how­ever, is fast­track author­ity, which would give the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion the abil­ity to wrap up ne­go­ti­a­tions on the Tran­sPa­cific Part­ner­ship, a free­trade deal years in the mak­ing. Un­der fast-track, the pres­i­dent could present a fi­nal agree­ment to Congress for ex­pe­dited con­sid­er­a­tion and an up-or-down vote with no amend­ments.

The Trans-Pa­cific Part­ner­ship would be one of the world’s largest and most am­bi­tious trade ef­forts ever, aimed at re­mov­ing bar­ri­ers and es­tab­lish­ing rules on in­vest­ment and com­merce af­fect­ing 40% of the global econ­omy.

The Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion has held up the Pa­cific trade part­ner­ship as the eco­nomic cen­ter­piece of its strat­egy to fo­cus more on that fast-grow­ing and in­creas­ingly wealthy re­gion, ar­gu­ing that the trade ac­cord would be good for the Amer­i­can econ­omy and en­sure that the U.S., not China, writes the eco­nomic rules in Asia-Pa­cific.

The White House has ar­gued that fast-track author­ity is vi­tal to com­plet­ing ne­go­ti­a­tions be­cause of­fi­cials in Ja­pan and other part­ner coun­tries will be re­luc­tant to put their best of­fers on the ta­ble or make com­pro­mises un­less they are as­sured the fi­nal pack­age will stick.

Pur­suit of the deal has aligned Obama with con­gres­sional Repub­li­cans, who are typ­i­cally pro-free trade. But some GOP con­ser­va­tives op­posed the fast­track mea­sure be­cause they are loath to boost the pres­i­dent’s author­ity or help him win a leg­isla­tive tro­phy.

“I un­der­stand a lot of our mem­bers don’t trust the pres­i­dent. Nei­ther do I. That’s pre­cisely why I sup­port this bill,” Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), a chief ne­go­tia­tor, said Fri­day in the House, in­sist­ing the mea­sure would give Congress ad­di­tional over­sight of the fi­nal trade deal. “TPA puts Congress in the driver’s seat.”

Demo­cratic law­mak­ers, mean­while, faced the un­com­fort­able choice of vot­ing against their pres­i­dent or for a bill that at most has tepid sup­port from or­di­nary con­stituents and is fiercely op­posed by var­i­ous con­sumer groups and or­ga­nized la­bor. Union lead­ers, fear­ing a trade deal will send more Amer­i­can jobs over­seas, have threat­ened to cut off elec­tion cam­paign help for law­mak­ers who sup­port the mea­sure.

Both sides were left stunned by Fri­day’s vote.

“No­body in this body would have be­lieved that we would have ended up where we ended up to­day,” said Rep. Steve Is­rael (D-New York), a mem­ber of the Demo­cratic lead­er­ship.

“This is not how I ex­pected the week to end,” agreed Rep. Pa­trick McHenry (R-N.C.), the chief deputy whip.

When fast-track author­ity faced ob­sta­cles in the Se­nate last month, GOP lead­ers won over some Democrats by cou­pling it with ex­tended fund­ing for re­train­ing Amer­i­can work­ers hurt by for­eign com­pe­ti­tion, a pro­gram known as Trade Ad­just­ment As­sis­tance.

But in the House, Democrats balked at the plan to pay for worker train­ing with what they viewed as cuts to Medi­care. Af­ter ne­go­ti­a­tions this week be­tween Pelosi and Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), House GOP lead­ers split the mea­sure into two bills, one for fast-track and an­other for the re­train­ing funds. They also agreed to find an al­ter­na­tive fund­ing source for the re­train­ing pro­gram.

In a sig­nal that ev­ery vote would be needed, Boehner, who by tra­di­tion as speaker does not typ­i­cally vote, an­nounced Fri­day he would back both bills.

But Repub­li­can skep­ti­cism about the re­train­ing pro­gram gave Democrats greater lever­age in de­feat­ing that por­tion of the pack­age.

Brush­ing aside White House warn­ings that the GOP-con­trolled Congress would al­low the re­train­ing pro­gram to ex­pire in Septem­ber, House Democrats seized on what they saw as a tac­ti­cal open­ing to de­feat the larger trade pack­age by ral­ly­ing votes against the train­ing-as­sis­tance pro­gram.

Pablo Martinez Mon­si­vais As­so­ci­ated Press

PRES­I­DENT OBAMA and House Mi­nor­ity Leader Nancy Pelosi leave a Capitol Hill meet­ing with House Democrats. Pelosi voted against a re­train­ing bill.

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