President Barack Obama heads to Oregon on Friday to make a big sales pitch for his trade agenda, but his bigger problem is back in Washington. In an unusual twist it’s not Republicans, but members of the President’s own party who stand in the way of him getting a key part of his economic agenda through the GOP-led Congress.
The debate over legislation to grant the administration so-called “fast-track” authority to approve trade deals without any amendments from Congress has propelled a massive lobbying campaign on both sides. Business groups and corporate coalitions pressing for the bill to boost U.S. exports are clashing with labor, environmental and consumer groups warning it will mean fewer American jobs and lower wages for workers.
Congress is expected to debate the issue over the next few weeks.
A major test comes Tuesday in the Senate with a vote on whether to begin debate on the fast-track bill, known formally as Trade Promotional Authority or TPA. The outcome is uncertain because Republicans who control the chamber need help from several Democrats to get the 60 votes they need to take up the bill and Democrats appear to be balking.
“We need 15 or more Democratic votes,” said Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, the top vote counter for Senate Republicans. “We’re not unanimously, on our side, in support of it. So this is a priority of the President so that comes with an obligation for him to work on members of his own party to produce the votes.”
Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Illinois, who handles wrangling Democratic votes, thought Cornyn was inflating the number of Democratic votes Republicans would need, but predicted between three and six Republicans would vote no.
While Republicans are typically pro-trade, some GOP senators, especially those up for re-election in states where jobs have moved overseas, may vote against it. One example is Sen. Richard Burr. A reliable Republican voter on most issues, Burr – up for re-election – has seen many textile jobs leave his state of North Carolina in recent years. He voted against fast-track authority when it was considered in committee.
While many congressional Democrats vehemently oppose big trade bills as job killers, seven Democrats on the Senate Finance Committee voted for the measure. Most are from states with large shipping ports where international trade is a mainstay.
Adding to the uncertainty over Tuesday’s vote, Democratic leaders are insisting Republicans agree to package the fast-track bill with three other trade bills that include Trade Adjustment Assistance, which would help American workers displaced by international trade, as well as provisions dealing with the enforcement of trade deals.
“The enforcement provisions that a lot of our colleagues feel is important because a lot of previous deals haven’t been enforced.,” said Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, a Democratic leader. “I think there is a large feeling in our caucus that we want those four put together before we move forward.”
In fact, Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon, the top Democrat on the finance committee and a co-sponsor of the legislation, urged Democrats in a private caucus meeting Thursday not to take up his bill unless there is a deal with Republicans to do all four bills, according to a person familiar with the session.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell hasn’t decided how to package the bills. But Cornyn said doing all four “was not the deal” and that Republicans – many of who don’t like the enforcement provisions – had agreed only to pair together the fast-track bill and the displaced worker’s bill.
McConnell this week praised Obama’s handling of the trade bill and said, “It’s been almost an out-of-body experience, but we’ve been working closely with the White House.”
In a floor speech Thursday, he explained the importance of passing the bill.
“The United States is currently negotiating an agreement with a whole host of Pacific nations – not just Japan and Australia, but also countries like Canada and Chile – that would cement and enhance our role in the world’s fastest-growing region,” McConnell said.
“The so-called Trans-Pacific Partnership would lower unfair trade barriers to American-made goods and American produce sold in the Pacific. That would represent a huge win for American workers and American farmers, to say nothing of the far-reaching geopolitical implications for our country,” he said.
Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, also credited the Obama.
“I’m working my butt off to help the President,” he said. “Frankly, the President happens to be right on it.”
But the President is getting hammered on the left.
Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, a Democratic presidential candidate, urged the President to ditch his Friday visit to a Nike plant in Oregon.
“Nike epitomizes why disastrous unfettered free-trade policies during the past four decades have failed American workers, eroded our manufacturing base and increased income and wealth inequality in this country,” Sanders said in a letter to Obama he sent on Wednesday.
And in an appeal to supporters, Sen. Al Franken, D-Minnesota, urged them to sign a petition opposing fast track.
“I’m not saying that all trade agreements are bad. They’re not. When done right, trade can help American workers, communities, and our economy,” Franken wrote. “But we need to take the time to make sure trade agreements are, in fact, done right. Not fast.”
House vote a larger hurdle
The larger hurdle for passing trade promotion authority is getting it through the House of Representatives.
House Speaker John Boehner has repeatedly said he’ll need Democratic votes. Every time the issue comes up, he attempts to shift the onus on the President for securing those votes.
“The President needs to step up his game,” Boehner said in a message last week.
House Republican aides note that the vast majority of House members weren’t serving in Congress the last time a major trade deal was negotiated so getting rank-and-file up to speed has been a major focus.
House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, who authored the deal with Hatch and Wyden, mounted a major education campaign over the last few months. Now that the bill is facing a vote likely in June the effort has moved to House GOP leadership level to round up votes.
There are a group of House conservatives who are opposing the trade deal because they are reluctant to give the President any additional authority. But the bill’s proponents argue this concern is misplaced because the TPA bill actually gives Congress a greater say in the final trade deal once the administration finalizes it.
A new criticism arose recently from some on the right who worry the trade legislation could serve as a back door for illegal immigration – something both Republican leadership aides and outside conservative groups lobbying for the deal say is flat-out wrong.
But even if Boehner is able to run up a big number of House Republicans in support of the TPA bill, it’s not enough to get it over the finish line without a significant bloc of House Democrats. The number of Democrats publicly backing the bill is less than 20, short of what is thought to be enough to pass the measure.
“The votes are not there,” Democratic Rep. Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut, a strong critic of the legislation, told CNN. DeLauro maintained there was “overwhelming opposition” by House Democrats, who she said have been pushing back for months at the Administration’s efforts.
The House Republican Whip, Steve Scalise, also conceded last week there is still work to be done to prep for a floor vote.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, who has the power to help the President, hasn’t taken an official position on the trade promotion bill, and when asked how she’ll vote repeats her mantra that she is trying to get on “a path to yes.”
But Pelosi continues to highlight the problems she has with the bill – concerns about food safety, the lack of any provision addressing currency manipulation and access for U.S. automakers to foreign markets.
“I don’t think the enough of our issues have been resolved for us to be having a big movement of votes toward the bill,” Pelosi said in her press conference last week on Capitol Hill.
In recent weeks the Obama administration, which even Democrats admit has not had the best outreach program to Hill lawmakers, has made a full-court press. High-ranking officials and Cabinet secretaries are targeting the small but significant undecided Democrats on the issue.
“Are they going to try to strong arm people – you bet,” DeLauro told CNN. But she said one factor hurting the administration’s efforts to get fellow Democrats on board was not including them as key parts of the emerging deal were being negotiated.
“There has been almost no consultation with the Congress – almost none,” she said.
Even supporters of the deal admit that the fact that the timeline has slipped for a vote on the Hill has shown that many underestimated the fierce battle over the issue, and the willingness of so many in the President’s own party to deny him a key accomplishment.
Obama met last week with a group of moderate pro-business Democrats known as the “New Democratic Coalition.” In a session last month with the Congressional Black Caucus, the President also made a pitch on trade, according to Democratic sources familiar with the meeting, but it’s unclear he got many commitments.
The debate will only intensify in the next few weeks as the House and Senate debate the issue.
Hundreds of labor members are expected to descend on Capitol Hill next week and labor groups are cranking up television, radio, and digital ads in both targeted House districts and states of those Senate Democrats who could prove to be critical swing votes. A broader anti-trade coalition is also running TV ads across the country.
On the other side of the issue, the U.S. Chamber, and other pro-business groups are running a highly organized campaign to back their supporters and argue to constituents that the deal will have tangible economic benefits.