House Rejects Trade Measure, Rebuffing Obama’s Dramatic Appeal

Source: The New York Times

15 June 2015

WASHINGTON — Hours after President Obama made a dramatic, personal appeal for support, House Democrats on Friday thwarted his push to expand trade negotiating power — and quite likely his chance to secure a legacy-defining accord spanning the Pacific Ocean.

In a remarkable blow to a president they have backed so resolutely, House Democrats voted to end assistance to workers displaced by global trade, a program their party created and has supported for four decades. That move effectively scuttled legislation granting the president trade promotion authority — the power to negotiate trade deals that cannot be amended or filibustered by Congress.

“We want a better deal for America’s workers,” said Representative Nancy Pelosi of California, the House minority leader, who has guided the president’s agenda for two terms and was personally lobbied by Mr. Obama until the last minute.

The vote that prevented the president from obtaining trade promotional authority now imperils the more sweeping Trans-Pacific Partnership, a proposed trade agreement with 11 other nations along the Pacific Ocean that affects 40 percent of the global economy on goods ranging from running shoes to computers.

“They have taken their own child hostage,” said Representative Charlie Dent, Republican of Pennsylvania, adding, “Does it hurt the president? Of course it hurts the president, but it hurts America more.”

The Democratic revolt left Republican leaders trying to summon support from their own party for trade adjustment assistance, a program they have long derided as a waste of money and a concession to organized labor. Eighty-six Republicans voted for the program, more than double the 40 Democrats who supported it. But the trade adjustment assistance bill failed when 303 voted against it.

Republican leaders then passed, in a 219-to-211 vote, a stand-alone bill that would grant the president the trade negotiating authority he sought. But that measure cannot go to the president for his signature because the Senate version of the legislative package combined both trade adjustment and trade promotion.

There is still a possibility that the House will pass the worker assistance bill early next week and send to Mr. Obama, but it would require dozens of Republicans or Democrats changing their votes, a prospect Republicans said was remote.

“We are not done with this,” said Representative Kevin McCarthy of California, the majority leader. The hope is that Democrats, faced with the prospect of trade promotion authority passing the Senate without the worker assistance provisions, will reverse course.

After the vote, the president tried to play down the defeat. “These kinds of agreements reflect the realities of a 21st-century economy,” Mr. Obama said in a statement. “These kinds of agreements make sure that the global economy’s rules aren’t written by countries like China; they’re written by the United States of America. And to stand in their way is to do nothing but preserve the long-term status quo for American workers, and make it even harder for them to succeed.”

But after a rare and resounding victory, the left wing of his party showed no sign of relenting. A large coalition of labor, environmental groups, liberal activists and faith groups promised to keep the pressure on Democrats to stay the course, relishing their win, demanding that lawmakers spurn the president or risk a primary challenge.

Democrats rejected the president’s entreaties to “play it straight,” and not kill off trade promotion by voting against a program they have so consistently supported, according to Democrats in the room.

The president has frequently been criticized for not developing personal relationships with lawmakers, and some in his party think he paid a price on Friday. Representative Henry Cuellar, Democrat of Texas, said fellow Democrats loudly applauded Mr. Obama as he went through the battles he had fought on labor organizing, health care access and environmental protection. But he could not change minds.

President Obama and the House Democratic leader, Nancy Pelosi, left a meeting with House Democrats on Capitol Hill where Mr. Obama pushed for support for his trade agenda. Credit Stephen Crowley/The New York Times

“I wish there had been much better outreach,” Mr. Cuellar said.

One Democrat who asked not to be named because of his close ties with Mr. Obama, said that while the president’s term is up in 18 months, the unions that have backed Democrats for years — and had threatened retaliation on any Democrat who backed the trade bill — will still be around.

The reverberations of Friday’s vote could be broad and damaging. Trade ministers from the other countries have held off on negotiations, waiting to see if Congress would try to tamper with their final offers. Japan, the largest partner in the venture besides the United States, was particularly clear it will not be able to make the difficult political concessions Mr. Obama wants if Congress could then change the deal after its signing.

The president and Republican leaders framed the debate in terms of global influence and countering the rising power of China.

“When America leads, the world is safer, for freedom and for free enterprise, and if we don’t lead, we’re allowing and essentially inviting China to go right on setting the rules of the world economy,” Speaker John A. Boehner of Ohio said.

Beyond the Pacific accord, American and European negotiators had hoped to secure a trans-Atlantic agreement that is now also imperiled.

But to Democrats who have watched wages stagnate and manufacturing jobs move abroad since the North American Free Trade Agreement of 1993, there was little allure to another trade bill.

“Make no mistake, this is a race to the bottom,” Representative Rick Nolan, Democrat of Minnesota, said of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which he reviewed in the secret reading room where lawmakers can look at the chapters but cannot copy them or even take notes. “The time has come for Congress to say no to these agreements.”

Democrats initially complained about the way the trade adjustment assistance bill was paid for — with a slight tweak to Medicare, then complained that it did not offer assistance to government workers. But in the end, they knew that to kill fast-track negotiating power all they had to do was vote against worker assistance.

“Our job today is to vote down this bill, say no to trade adjustment and say no to fast-track,” said Representative Rosa DeLauro, Democrat of Connecticut, in defiance of Mr. Obama’s appeal to vote yes on trade adjustment even if a Democrat planned to vote no on trade promotion.

For weeks, Ms. Pelosi had kept quiet as most of her caucus roared their opposition. When she went to the House chamber to proclaim that she would vote against both trade assistance and trade promotion, no doubt remained about the outcome. Representative Steve Israel, Democrat of New York, said the president’s pitch might have swayed some undecided Democrats, but Ms. Pelosi reversed whatever gains the president may have made.

Before he joined the broader House Democratic Caucus meeting, the president met with Ms. Pelosi, Representative Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland, the Democratic whip, and Representative James E. Clyburn of South Carolina, the No. 3 House Democrat, for 20 minutes in the minority leader’s office.

It was at that meeting that she told the president she was leaning toward voting against both the trade adjustment and trade promotion measures, said a Democratic aide familiar with the conversation.

The aide said she has no intention of switching her vote if Republicans try again next week. She instead will press the president and Republicans to move on to a long-term highway bill, something many Democrats say they wish Mr. Obama had made a priority over a trade measure they could never support.

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