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Fast-track trade bill clears House: Trust is key for Congress, president (+video)

President Obama asked Democrats to trust him and pass the trade legislation he wants. That didn't work. Now, to save the bills, pro-trade Democrats and Republicans will have to trust each other – and Mr. Obama.

[Updated at 3:00 p.m. Eastern time.] Less than a week ago, President Obama lobbied for his trade agenda before a skeptical caucus of House Democrats: Trust me, he essentially said, I’ve always been on the side of workers. Hours later, 144 Democrats killed his plans.

Now it looks like Mr. Obama may have the upper hand, working out a deal with Republican leaders and pro-trade Democrats for a do-over on Thursday. If the strategy works, the president will soon get his controversial “fast track” authority to finish negotiating a historic Pacific Rim trade deal, which many Democrats consider harmful to jobs and wages.

And if the president gets fast track, the 144 will be thrown under the bus.

Trust is a fragile commodity in Washington, a critical factor in many deals but also easily eclipsed by other considerations. Between parties and within them, it ebbs and flows with the circumstances and players. Last week, it didn't work. Other factors worked against Obama, outweighing his trust pitch. This week, conditions appear to be working for him. But legislative success will depend largely on whether a group of pro-trade allies can trust one another.

“It’s going to be an ingredient in this recipe, an important ingredient,” said Rep. Gerald Connolly (D) of Virginia, a pro-trade Democrat speaking of the deal as it was unfolding Tuesday.

On Thursday, the House passed the fast track bill, which strengthens the administration's negotiating hand by allowing Congress to vote only up or down on a final trade deal, not amend it. The vote was 218 to 208. The bill now goes back to the Senate.

That might seem like a repeat of last week, when 28 pro-trade Democrats also helped the House pass fast track. But beneath the two seemingly similar votes were two very different political calculations – both of tactics and of trust.

Last week's vote was only a symbolic win. In a surprising tactical move backed by Big Labor, an army of Democrats killed a must-pass companion measure that helps workers who are displaced by global trade.

Leading the charge against the president last Friday was House minority leader Nancy Pelosi (D) of California. Before the vote, Representative Pelosi had coordinated closely with the White House, arranging briefings for Democrats with administration officials – culminating in Obama’s rare visit to the Capitol on Friday morning. But at the last minute, she revealed that she was siding with most people in her caucus – not with the president.

Despite the president's plea, trust was not the main consideration for most House Democrats, it turned out. Obama may have asked his allies to have faith that he would negotiate a good Pacific trade deal for workers. But most Democrats could think only of jobs outsourced from their districts and what some members called "heavy-handed" lobbying by unions.

“It doesn’t mean people didn’t trust the president,” said Congressman Connolly. “It meant that there were factors more powerful than that … in their deciding how to vote.”

After the vote, Pelosi was sidelined.

What followed were unusually intense consultations among those who believe fast track and a Pacific Rim trade deal will open markets and boost United States economic growth and jobs: Republican leaders House Speaker John Boehner (R) of Ohio and Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky, Obama, and pro-trade Democrats in the House and Senate.

Their new strategy appears to be to separate votes on fast track from votes on help for displaced workers. In both chambers, fast track would be passed first, and aid second, according to news reports.

That requires a high degree of trust among the pro-traders, especially in the Senate, where Democratic supporters have insisted that help for workers be part of fast track, even while Republicans generally oppose that assistance.

If the votes are decoupled, what's to keep Republicans from killing off the aid once they get fast track?, Democrats wonder. Indeed, Obama wants both pieces of legislation to arrive at his desk, his spokesman says, though he appears to be on board with the separate votes.

The new strategy can work only if there is an understanding in the Senate that pro-trade Democrats will vote for fast track while pro-trade Republicans will swallow aid for workers – and if House Democrats fall in line behind the aid measure, presumably because fast track will have been passed already and they have no leverage to block it.

To reinforce this carefully constructed but risky strategy, Speaker Boehner and majority leader McConnell issued a joint statement Thursday: “We are committed to ensuring both ... get votes in the House and Senate and are sent to the President for signature.”

Sen. Bill Nelson (D) of Florida told the Monitor on Tuesday that he believes all 14 Democrats who supported the trade bill last month will follow Obama’s lead this time.

“I trust the president,” he said.

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