Obama’s fast-track trade bill scuttled by House Democrats

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Democrats handed President Barack Obama an embarrassing defeat on his trade agenda, blocking final passage of fast-track negotiating authority just hours after he made a rare visit to Capitol Hill to seek their support.

In a 126-302 vote Friday, Democrats helped reject a displaced workers’ aid program they usually support that was needed to proceed to a final vote on fast-track authority. The House quickly passed, 219-211, the fast-track bill though it won’t go to Obama’s desk unless the worker aid bill also passes.

The House plans to vote on that measure Tuesday, House Republican aide Brendan Buck said. At that time, the package could go to Obama if passed.

“We have to slow down,” said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat. “Whatever the deal is with other countries, we want a better deal for America’s workers.”

Obama’s administration — and the president personally — lobbied for months for expedited trade negotiating authority, saying it is needed to advance trade agreements that will keep the U.S. competitive with overseas rivals. In a sign of the push, earlier Friday press secretary Josh Earnest forwarded a Twitter posting by Obama’s ambassador to Japan, Caroline Kennedy, who wrote, “My dad, JFK, was for free trade. Democrats today should be too.”

Obama went to Capitol Hill Friday morning for a private meeting with House Democrats to push for passage of the trade measures. Afterward, several members said they still weren’t convinced.

‘We just disagree’

“If anyone could have changed our minds,” it would have been the president, said California Democrat Brad Sherman, who opposes the measures. The president spoke eloquently, but “a majority of our caucus does not agree with him on this issue,” Sherman said. “We just disagree.”

Rep. Keith Ellison, a Minnesota Democrat said, “He said if we don’t do it his way then we aren’t playing it straight. Well, I am playing it straight.”

In an unusual alliance, most Republicans were backing Obama, who contended the trade measure would help U.S. workers and set rules for the global economy. Many Democrats remain stung by the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement, which labor unions blame for a decline in U.S. manufacturing jobs.

Obama sent top government officials including Treasury Secretary Jacob J. Lew to the Capitol a day earlier to plead for House Democrats’ votes. The measure, passed by the Senate in May, would let Obama submit trade agreements to Congress for an expedited, up-or-down vote without amendments.

Obama sought the authority to help complete a 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership that would be a cornerstone of rebalancing U.S. foreign policy toward Asia.

Bipartisan opportunity

The defeat is a blow for Obama because trade was an area where he had seen opportunity for support from Republicans, who this year took control of the Senate as well as the House where they’d already had a majority. Obama had spoken with optimism as the congressional session began about trade being a bright spot where he and Republicans agreed something had to be done.

It was Obama’s own party that dealt him the defeat on trade, siding instead with labor unions and environmental groups that have urged caution on expanding trade, saying it would cost U.S. jobs.

Obama invested time and his political capital in making trade his top domestic priority this year. He has said that without fast-track authority, reaching trade agreements with Pacific or European nations will be unlikely. The Friday morning trip to Capitol Hill — his first since 2013 for a policy matter — was an indication of how personal the administration lobbying effort was to the the president.

The bill, H.R. 1314, would give Obama and the next president expedited trade negotiating authority for six years.

Worker assistance

Friday’s voting procedure was worked out between Speaker John Boehner and Pelosi. It allowed a vote on the fast-track trade bill only if the House first passed a measure providing aid to workers who lose their jobs to foreign competition.

The worker assistance program typically is supported by Democrats and opposed by most Republicans. Some Democrats decided to defeat it because that would stop the vote on Obama’s trade negotiating authority. The move would be worth it even though $450 million in aid for workers would be lost, some lawmakers said.

“There are plenty of those who feel that’s not such a bad price to pay for saving American jobs,” Representative Jan Schakowsky, an Illinois Democrat, said Thursday.

Republicans also confronted opposition within their ranks to the trade package from members who wouldn’t approve anything strengthening Obama’s hand in international negotiations.

“As a Republican, free trade would be a great concept, but the folks back home have absolutely no faith and confidence in this president,” Representative Blake Farenthold of Texas told reporters Thursday.

Boehner of Ohio, who spoke with Obama by telephone Thursday about the trade votes, contended that legislating the conditions for trade negotiating authority was a better option.

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