Washington (CNN)The White House's trade agenda appeared to be in serious jeopardy Thursday afternoon after House Democrats threatened to scuttle passage of a bill needed to set up a massive Asian free trade agreement.
Obama trade agenda in jeopardy as Hill Dems feud
At the heart of the issue is whether the House should pass Trade Adjustment Assistance, a program that would help American workers displaced by a potential free trade deal find work. But Democrats were feuding over whether the program should include public workers, and the procedure for voting on it.
If TAA doesn't pass, then the authority to let Obama "fast track" bills through Congress won't pass, either. And if the fast-track authority dies, then Obama's free trade deal, the Trans-Pacific Partnership -- the White House's top economic priority -- will fall apart.
A vote on both the worker retraining program and fast-track authority is scheduled for Friday in what is expected to be an extremely close contest.
Thursday afternoon, the House voted 217-212 to approve a rule to move forward on votes for both measures. The final tally was closer than anticipated because a number of Republicans voted against the rule, requiring eight Democrats to vote yes.
The Obama administration had dispatched several top officials, including Treasury Secretary Jack Lew, White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough and Labor Secretary Thomas Perez to a meeting of the House Democratic caucus. AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, a strong opponent of the trade agreement, was also in attendance.
"We need to treat this moment for what it is: a life or death moment for TAA," Lew said in the meeting, according to a Democratic aide in the room.
But multiple members indicated that they didn't think the meeting changed anyone's minds or votes on the issue.
Rep. Jan Schakowsky, an Illinois Democrat who was an early backer of Obama's trade agreement, told reporters after Thursday's meeting that she thought "it was a mistake" for the President to push this trade package.
Obama spoke with House Speaker John Boehner Thursday morning about trade, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said, though he would not provide any details of their conversation.
Earnest, however, did urge lawmakers to pass TAA.
"If you're a member of Congress, and you vote against Trade Adjustment Assistance this week, you are adding your name to the death certificate of Trade Adjustment Assistance because it will go away," Earnest said. "And that is a source of significant concern to the President."
Trade promotion authority, which is supported by a majority of Republicans, would grease the wheels for the 12-country Trans-Pacific Partnership by guaranteeing the deal an up-or-down vote with limited debate and no amendments. Trade negotiators say such fast-track approval is essential to the international negotiations, but the bill is running into opposition from liberals, who are staunchly opposed to another free trade agreement, and some conservatives, who fear placing more authority in the executive branch.
As Democrats feuded among themselves, Republicans also saw discontent within their ranks. To attract conservative support, they agreed to add two provisions to the trade package on Wednesday -- one stating the President cannot make any changes to immigration policies as part of trade negotiations, and another barring the administration from including any climate change provisions as part of the final TPP deal.
House Republican aides say they have already addressed concerns raised by Democrats on the worker retraining issue, and passed a fix that swapped the cuts to Medicare with money raised from a tougher enforcement of a tax compliance program.
"We addressed all their 'concerns.' Now we see whether the President has any pull with his party to prevent a terrible embarrassment," one senior House Republican leadership aide told CNN Wednesday.
But House Democrats are fretting that they'll be accused by the National Republican Congressional Committee, the GOP's campaign arm, of cutting health care to seniors. They want an ironclad guarantee from the Senate that the Medicare fix will be passed in that chamber as well.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell seemed to offer those assurances Wednesday, saying his chamber would quickly move the separate bill, which contains other trade preferences provisions.
"The Senate passed the trade preferences bill by a vote of 97-1," McConnell said in a statement Wednesday evening. "The Senate will work expeditiously to approve it and send it to the President's desk."