Despite a last-minute, personal appeal to House Democrats on Friday, President Obama failed to cinch his best hope for securing the biggest agenda of his second term, losing fast-track trading authority to a tactical play by most Democrats, backed by Big Labor.
Even Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic minority leader from California, went against him. “We need to slow this fast track down,” she said from the floor, in a speech applauded by many of her colleagues. “We want a better deal for America’s workers.”
How can it be that a Congress controlled by Republicans – who traditionally back free-trade agreements as engines of job and economic growth – lost this round? And that the president and this White House, more engaged with lawmakers on this issue than on almost any other in Mr. Obama's presidency, could not bring it home?
To answer the first question, Republican leaders in the House still needed Democratic votes because a sizable contingent of theirs neither trusted the president on fast track nor wanted to hand him a win.
But looked at more broadly, Obama's tumble on trade has less to do with the majority view in Congress, and much more to do with the nimbleness of the progressives and their union backers, who view fast track and the Pacific trade deal as job-killers. Obama was simply outmaneuvered on this one.
Symbolically, the president actually did get the votes that he needed for fast track, which would allow him to negotiate trade deals with the knowledge that Congress could vote only up or down, and not amend it. Twenty-eight Democrats joined 181 Republicans to pass the fast-track measure, 219 to 211.
But its adoption depended on the passage of a companion measure. The Senate passed a bill that included both measures last month, but vociferous opponents of fast track in the House seized the companion measure as an opportunity to apply the brakes.
What followed was a historic double take. A wave of 144 Democrats voted against assistance for workers displaced by global trade – assistance that Democrats have supported for decades and that has helped more than 2 million people. That measure was defeated 302 to 126 – though it is expected to come up for a vote again next week, giving the president another chance.
In the minds of many Democrats, killing assistance for displaced workers was the lesser of two evils.
"There are plenty of those who feel that that’s not such a bad price to pay for saving American jobs by defeating” fast track and a potential trade deal involving 12 Pacific Rim countries, said Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D) of Illinois on Thursday. She voted against both fast track and assistance.
Just a week ago, Obama – so often criticized for being MIA when it comes to lobbying Congress – was being praised for his attention to lawmakers on this issue.
Rep. Cedric Richmond (D) of Louisiana told reporters that the president and the White House had been pursuing him for six to seven months. “They’ve done everything they’re supposed to do,” he said last week.
The White House was given political space to work by Representative Pelosi, who stayed “neutral” until the very end. She invited White House officials to brief Democrats on all kinds of issues, from currency manipulation and dispute resolution to labor and environmental protections. On Thursday, she invited both sides – the White House and AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka – to brief House Democrats.
Rep. Gerry Connolly (D) of Virginia, who supports the president on fast track, said in an interview after Friday’s votes that for most of the past year, Obama and senior officials have approached fast track as “an information management issue.”
In about 1,300 briefings, hearings, one-on-ones, and other venues with members, they explained the benefits of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement, why it’s not NAFTA – the much-maligned North American Free Trade Agreement of 1993 – and why this fast-track request is improved over ones sought by other presidents.
“If they made a mistake at all, and I’m not saying they did, it would be that they were a little slow to understand when that changed” from a need to dispense more information, to a “political, count noses, stage, where we’re not arguing the merits anymore, but hard politics,” Representative Connolly said.
Only a couple of months ago, he said, the administration approached members about what they needed, what could be done for them in their districts, what concerns they had, and how – and whether – they could be met. But by that time it was too late, he said.
“The opposition had been in high gear for a long time.”
Most recently – and fatally – the White House “was not fast enough” when labor and progressives decided on the unusual strategy of killing fast track by killing trade assistance for displaced workers, Rep. Henry Cuellar (D) of Texas told reporters Friday morning. Representative Cuellar supports fast track.
Realizing the danger, Obama went to the Hill on Friday morning and delivered an impassioned speech. He urged Democrats to “play it straight” with their votes – not to use assistance for displaced workers as a tool to kill fast track, but rather to back it because it reflects Democratic values.
That insulted Democratic Rep. Peter DeFazio of Oregon, a strong opponent of fast track and the Pacific trade deal, which Obama would like to finish during his term.
“Basically, the president tried to both guilt people and then impugn their integrity, and I don’t think it was a very effective tactic. There were a number of us who were insulted by the approach,” he told reporters. Obama had the votes for fast track, and yet “he’s saying you’re not playing it straight if you use the only tool you have” to stop it.
Over the weekend, all sides will have a chance to reconsider things, and then the trade assistance measure is expected to come up for a vote next week – per a motion filed by Speaker John Boehner (R) of Ohio.
Connolly hopes that by then, many Democrats will realize that they have killed a program that benefits workers. Given Friday’s vote, that obviously didn’t faze many of his colleagues.