Democrats blast unions’ pressure tactics on trade

Updated 10:27 PM EDT, Wed June 3, 2015

Story highlights

The AFL-CIO has made defeating trade promotion authority their top priority

Democrats who support Obama's free-trade push are growing increasingly concerned about organized labor's tactics

(CNN) —  

The Democrats who support President Barack Obama’s free-trade push are growing increasingly concerned about organized labor’s hardball tactics.

The AFL-CIO and other leading labor unions have made defeating trade promotion authority – which greases the wheels for Obama’s massive Trans-Pacific Partnership by guaranteeing it an up-or-down vote with no amendments – their top legislative priority.

“Labor is going a little overboard and I think there is some potential backlash for how far they are going,” said Louisiana Rep. Cedric Richmond, a Democrat, on Wednesday.

The measure has already cleared the Senate, and it’s expected to get a vote in the House in the coming weeks.

RELATED: Liberal critics of trade stuck in the past, Obama says

But unions are skeptical about Obama administration promises that the deal would protect labor rights and the environment. They also fear that the agreement would result in countries having a price advantage over the United States, which they say would drive down wages for U.S. workers and siphon away more manufacturing jobs.

“Even though this trade deal will affect 40% of the world’s GDP, and even though no prior trade deal (a U.S. Trade Representative) has negotiated has ever lived up to its promises, and even though the administration has promised that this would be the most progressive, transparent trade deal in history, we still can’t see the text,” said Liz Shuler, secretary-treasurer at the AFL-CIO, in a statement.

So union leaders are telling pro-trade Democrats, and those considering voting for the deal, they will fund a primary challenge against them, or they won’t back them in a future tough re-election fight in 2016.

Playing hardball

They’ve made an example of California Democratic Rep. Ami Bera, putting the early supporter of Obama’s trade efforts in the crosshairs with paid television advertisements in his district and promises to unseat him in 2016, even if that means a Republican takes his seat.

Illinois Democratic Rep. Mike Quigley, an early supporter of the bill, told CNN the pressure from labor is the reason why there are fewer than 20 House Democrats committed to voting for trade promotion authority.

“If you just look at this from a rational view, you’d have a lot more yeses,” Quigley said.

Lawmakers’ frustration spilled out in a closed-door meeting with pro-trade Democrats and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi on Wednesday.

“We’ve always known the history of trade debates and local politics can be pretty tough. This time is no different,” said Rep. Ron Kind, the Wisconsin Democrat who organized the meeting.

“I just hope that they are not losing the forest to the tree here,” Kind told CNN, noting “a lot of issues affect the causes that labor stands for, and Democrats, by and large, are extremely supportive of that. To isolate this one issue and make that the end-all, be-all, I think, is a bad strategy.”

While labor’s threats have thrown the fate of a key trade bill into doubt, some Democrats say they could backfire.

Richmond, who did not attend Wednesday’s meeting said he was “leaning no” on the bill – but the more he hears about labor groups’ tactics, the more inclined he is to support Obama.

RELATED: 6 reasons why the Trans-Pacific Partnership matters

“I’m watching them do it, and it bothers me,” Richmond said.

Obama and his administration have spent recent months lobbying Democratic lawmakers to support the bill in phone calls, one-on-one meetings and group briefings. Both Democratic and Republican aides say with around 50 tea partiers likely to break away from GOP members who typically support free trade, Obama’s party will need to supply about 30 votes – and the President is somewhere around a dozen shy.

White House optimistic

The White House is optimistic, though, since Pelosi has remained on the sidelines – not publicly supporting the bill, but not twisting her members’ arms to oppose it, either.

Democrats on both sides of the issue have praised Pelosi, who hasn’t publicly taken a position on trade, or giving her members time and space to decide how they will vote. Pelosi has made sure they get regular briefings, and has bombarded offices with a steady stream of background on the details of the agreement.

“It’s like drinking through a fire hydrant,” Richmond said.

Some pro-trade groups are hopeful that members of the Congressional Black Caucus, feeling some loyalty to President Obama, will provide the final bloc of votes to pass trade promotional authority.

RELATED: Hillary Clinton finds problems with TPP

But Richmond, a member of the Congressional Black Caucus, told reporters that it’s “unrealistic and unfair to group the black caucus like that.”

“I’ve heard them (Republicans) say, ‘because he’s y’all’s president’ a lot of the time, and I think that’s offensive because I think you are insinuating he’s not everybody’s president.”

Eating their own?

House Democrats are not only griping about labor’s tactics, but about their fellow Democrats actively working against them.

One outspoken opponent of the trade deal, Rep. Alan Grayson of Florida, circulated an email to anti-trade groups and other members who have been critical listing the names of all the House Democrats who committed to voting yes, urging grassroots supporters to bombard their offices and pressure them to vote no.

Texas Rep. Henry Cuellar attended the session with Pelosi and told CNN he specifically called out Grayson in the meeting. He quoted a fellow Texas Democrat, former President Lyndon B. Johnson, who once joked about the difference between cannibals and liberals.

“Cannibals don’t eat their own,” Cuellar told his fellow Democrats. “Here, we are seeing people going after their own, just because we have a disagreement.”