The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Could liberals bring down Obama’s big trade agenda?

President Obama’s trade agenda is really hanging in the balance right now, as the bill giving him Fast Track authority to negotiate the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal appears balanced on the edge of a knife in the House of Representatives.

The latest: Dem Rep. Sander Levin — the ranking Democrat on the powerful Ways and Means Committee, and a well-respected lawmaker on trade and labor issues — plans to vote No on a key measure related to trade, a spokesperson for Levin confirms to me. That could prove to be a serious blow.

Levin will vote No on so-called Trade Adjustment Assistance, a measure that would give aid to workers displaced by trade, his spokesman, Caroline Behringer, tells me. “Mr. Levin plans to vote No on TAA,” she emails.

This suggests that the strategy that liberal Democrats and labor unions have employed to kill Fast Track may be working. As I reported the other day, a bloc of liberal House Dems, allied with unions, have been working to turn House Democrats against TAA, as a back-door way to bring down Fast Track, and with it, the whole deal. The administration says it needs Fast Track to seal the final agreement.

To pass Fast Track — which has already passed the Senate — House GOP leaders would need around 20, and possibly more, pro-TPP House Dems to vote Yes, depending on how many Republicans vote No. If TAA doesn’t pass first, those Dems might find it too politically difficult to vote for Fast Track, killing it that way. Or, for complex procedural reasons, if TAA fails, House GOP leaders might not end up moving Fast Track at all.

Only arond 50-100 Republicans are expected to vote for TAA — it is assistance for workers — so it would have to pass with overwhelming Democratic support. That’s why liberals opposed to Fast Track and TPP are urging House Dems to oppose it.

And so, liberal Dems had initially argued that TAA — which they would generally support, since it helps workers — must be opposed because it is funded with Medicare cuts. But Nancy Pelosi — who is trying to salvage TAA — negotiated a new, uncontroversial pay-for for TAA with the GOP leadership.

Yet liberal Democrats continue to oppose TAA, anyway, raising the question of whether their objections to TAA have become solely about blocking Obama’s full trade agenda. The Peterson Institute for International Economics is circulating a primer on TAA that argues that killing it in order to realize the unstated goal of sinking Obama’s trade deal could hurt a lot of displaced workers who would get caught in the cross-fire.

Just today, several labor unions — the AFL-CIO and the International Brotherhood of Teamsters — circulated letters to House Democrats, urging a No vote on TAA, on the grounds that it doesn’t extend assistance to public employees.

Politico reports on the latest:

The uncertainty surrounding the TAA and fast track votes are becoming a serious problem for Obama. If TAA fails, the House will not take up Trade Promotion Authority, the key legislation that would give Obama fast-track authority to negotiate the sweeping Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement. Under that scenario both sides would have to regroup and figure out a way forward — or else the 12-nation trade deal could fall apart.
Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), normally a close ally of Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), has been a vocal opponent of TAA, while raising other objections about the package. DeLauro and the Congressional Progressive Caucus are using the TAA issue as a wedge to sink fast track. And these progressives, who have been in favor of TAA for years, may end up killing the program, along with the rest of Obama’s trade agenda…
Pelosi, who says she is neutral on giving Obama fast-track authority, says she also has concerns about other language in the agreement regarding public employee unions. She is also seeking policy changes alongside the process she pitched to Boehner. Labor unions say public employees are vulnerable to governments shipping their jobs overseas.
The GOP leadership believes Obama needs to step in. White House officials have privately said they are confident that they can round up the 20-plus Democrats needed to pass fast track.

It’s very hard to predict how this is going to end up. It’s possible, as Dem Rep. Henry Cuellar said today, that more Dems than anticipated, perhaps as many as 25 or 30, will ultimately vote Yes on Fast Track. But that presumably depends on TAA surviving. If it doesn’t, what’s next is anyone’s guess.

It still seems likely that Fast Track will survive in the end. House GOP leaders have been loading up the bill with right-wing policies, such as assurances that future trade deals won’t be used to relax immigration restrictions, to win over House conservatives. Any rebellion on the right has long seemed likely to fizzle. There is still some uncertainty around what Rust Belt House Republicans will do, but GOP leaders appear confident that they will get 190-200 House Republicans to give Obama Fast Track authority in the end.

And so, it now appears that if Obama’s trade agenda does go down, it might be due to liberals and Democrats.

UPDATE: An administration official emails:

“This is a new level of political cynicism from hard-core trade opponents. It’s scary that they’d be willing to take TAA down — potentially for good — just to kill TPA.”