The House on Thursday voted to advance legislation to give President Barack Obama fast-track authority to negotiate a mammoth Pacific trade deal, reviving the prospects for the President to achieve a key element of his agenda.
The bill, known as TPA, passed by a razor-thin 10-vote margin, with 28 Democrats joining all but 50 Republicans to send the bill to the Senate.
The Senate is expected to vote next week on the legislation, when it is also expected to take up a trade assistance measure aimed at winning over Democrats in a separate vote.
While House Speaker John Boehner said he was hopeful the Senate would pass both measures and the House would complete action next week, passage of the trade bills in the Senate remains far from certain.
Several of the 14 pro-trade Democrats who backed the fast track and worker assistance bills before are withholding their support as they negotiate possible changes to the worker assistance bill. They also want iron clad assurances from GOP leaders that it will pass both chambers.
And House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi expressed skepticism that ultimately a bill to help workers displaced by trade would be approved, telling reporters, I don’t see a path right now for TAA.”
But Rep. Steve Israel, D-New York, a member of Pelosi’s leadership team, said he can’t imagine fellow Democrats, after fast track legislation has already passed, would defeat a program to help a program giving aide to those who will need it.
“That is the quintessential cutting of our noses to spite our face. And it’s not cutting off our noses – it’s cutting off the noses of working people,” Israel said. He said he planned to vote for TAA, even though he voted against the fast track bill.
Thursday’s vote came less than a week after House Democrats, in a stunning rebuke to the President, torpedoed the legislation by voting down the trade assistance bill that was tethered to TPA.
Now, House and Senate Republican leaders will look to pass both components in separate votes to give Obama the authority and confidence to negotiate a free trade agreement with a dozen countries on the Pacific Rim.
The votes haven’t been without high drama as Pelosi broke with Obama to lead Democrats against the trade authority package last week – she tried on Thursday to downplay the riff between her and House Democrats.
“We have a deep relationship of trust with the President, Pelosi said.
Without Pelosi and most Democrats, Republican leaders have found themselves in the strange position of helping Obama secure a key component of his legacy.
It’s that roller coaster of events that prompted House Speaker John Boehner on Thursday to call the events of the last few weeks “close to bizarre.”
Israel told reporters “we need to get off this topic,” saying the internal warfare among Democrats over trade is marginalizing the party and its prospects in the next election.
“Right now what we are doing is devouring each other and if I were the Republicans I would be enjoying every minute of this.” Israel said.
On the Senate side, pro-trade Democrats remain squeamish about the tactics taken by GOP leaders and the White House.
“There is widespread concern among pro-trade Senate Democrats that the strategy laid out by the White House relies on the speaker not just having a vote but supporting a vote on TAA and I think there is a great deal of concern and consternation about that strategy,” said Sen. Chris Coons of Delaware, one of the 14.
Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Oregon, who co-authored the original trade package, explained that pro-trade Democrats have suffered many political “hits” for their support of the TPA, which is generally unpopular with their base. So Wyden and other Democrats are wary of a backlash from labor groups if they vote again for TPA without knowing for sure if the worker assistance bill will become law.
Some of the 14 now want to use the opportunity as leverage to push through renewal of the Export-Import Bank. which expires at the end of June. They argue the bank supports tens of thousands of American jobs through the loans it makes to foreign companies to buy U.S.-made goods.
“I’d love to see this as an opportunity to do something, at least, to avoid the charter to the Ex-Im bank to expire,” said one of those Democrats, Sen. Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota. “So I think there are still ongoing discussions.”
CNN’s Ted Barrett contributed to this report.