Opinion writer

In what is widely being described as a “stinging” defeat — as such defeats always are described — Congress voted down a key measure President Obama had requested as crucial to getting his trade agenda passed. The Post reports:

President Obama suffered a major defeat to his Pacific Rim free trade initiative Friday as House Democrats helped derail a key presidential priority despite his last-minute, personal plea on Capitol Hill.

The House voted 302 to 126 to sink a measure to grant financial aid to displaced workers, fracturing hopes at the White House that Congress would grant Obama fast-track trade authority to complete an accord with 11 other Pacific Rim nations.

“I will be voting to slow down fast-track,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said on the floor moments before the vote, after keeping her intentions private for months. “Today we have an opportunity to slow down. Whatever the deal is with other countries, we want a better deal for American workers.”

As this blog has discussed before, the left had hoped to defeat Trade Adjustment Assistance, or financial help for workers displaced by trade, as a way to bring down Fast Track (which has already passed the Senate). The two bills must advance together. The defeat of TAA was accomplished today.

On this front, there’s no overstating it: Obama ran into a wall of opposition among Democrats, and could not make headway, despite weeks of personal appeals (and not a little browbeating). Only 40 Dems backed TAA, while 144 voted against it, a strikingly large number, given that this was part of a broader strategy to block Obama’s whole trade agenda.

But it’s too early to say whether this represents final defeat of Fast Track or the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

After all, the House then subsequently passed Fast Track on its own, without TAA. That’s a symbolic vote, in the sense that it can’t go to the president, because it differs from the Senate version. But John Boehner announced today that another vote on TAA will occur next week.

So what now?

Theoretically if TAA were to pass at that point, the new package would go back to the Senate and pass (the Senate passed Fast Track already), and it would then go to the president. That’s possible, but getting TAA through the House might be very hard — you’d need nearly 100 more House members to vote Yes. So either you would need a very large number of Dems to switch their votes, or you would need a very large number of Republicans to switch their votes, or you would need a sizable bloc of both to switch their votes.

At this point, it’s not clear what incentives Democrats have to switch. After all, they’ve already bucked the president after weeks of pressure — and now they’re basking in plaudits from labor unions and liberal groups. And since their goal all along has been to kill Fast Track, it’s not immediately clear why their incentives would change.

A large bloc of Republicans might have an incentive to switch, since they want Fast Track, and it has now been confirmed that the votes are there for it. Before, they were voting against TAA without knowing how the Fast Track vote would turn out. But Politico reports that GOP aides don’t think they can deliver more than 100 votes for TAA (86 already voted Yes today). And really, how likely is it that a huge number of Republicans will suddenly vote for assistance for workers? That’s what they may have to do if they want the Trans-Pacific Partnership to pass.

But even liberal opponents think it’s not impossible that, with enough pressure, a large enough bloc on both sides could switch. “There could still be enough arm-twisting of Republicans and Democrats to pass TAA,” says Neil Sroka, a spokesman for Democracy For America, which is lobbying against the trade deal. “We’re going to still continue to fight.”

Meanwhile, House Democratic leaders are now already moving to use today’s failed vote as leverage to get something else in exchange for reviving it: Infrastructure spending.  In a letter to colleagues today, Nancy Pelosi said:

The overwhelming vote today is a clear indication that it’s time for Republicans to sit down with Democrats to negotiate a trade promotion authority bill that is a better deal for the American people.

The prospects for passage of a such a bill will greatly increase with the passage of a robust highway bill. We look forward to working in a bipartisan way for a trade promotion authority bill that has better transparency, more consultation with Congress and stronger protections for Congressional priorities – especially labor rights and the environment.

And so, Pelosi is essentially saying that if Republicans agree to replenish the Highway Trust Fund somehow (which Republicans have said they want to do, but are stuck on how to pay for it) and improve the Fast Track bill, then Democrats might support TAA, which could result in this all moving forward. Democrats would then have a clear incentive to change their vote: They would be voting for worker protections (TAA) and getting infrastructure spending and more. It might be smart for John Boehner to use the need to get trade through to urge fellow Republicans to support replenishing highway funds, since that’s a must-pass, too.

It’s unclear how likely that scenario is — it seems like a lot would have to go right — but it seems a bit premature to declare this whole thing over.