President Obama and his momentary Republican allies in Congress mulled several difficult choices Monday for rescuing trade legislation into which the president has invested a massive amount of political capital in the hope of completing a 12-nation trade deal across the Pacific Rim.
After successful Democratic efforts to block the president’s trade package, Obama and House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) spoke by phone and consulted their respective top lieutenants as they tried to find a path to success, according to senior aides. Their first call was to abandon plans for a second vote Tuesday on a piece of legislation that must also pass for the entire package to advance to Obama’s desk. Given the grim outcome for Obama of the first vote on Friday — 302 against and 126 in favor — they stood no chance for turning nearly 100 votes in four days.
Instead, Boehner decided to impose a temporary rule that, if approved Tuesday, will allow him until July 30 to bring up the trade debate at any time for a do-over of the stalled companion legislation to the trade package. If successful, Boehner will have bought an additional six weeks to find a way out of the mess.
The AFL-CIO, traditionally one of Obama’s strongest allies, has been his most bitter rival on the trade pact, and on Monday the union began a very public thank-you campaign to the Democrats who opposed the president and helped defeat the legislation.
Even pro-trade Democrats grew grim when discussing what options were available to them in the short term. “I am not aware of any emerging strategy that could turn this around,” said Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (Va.), one of 28 Democrats who voted for the trade promotion piece of the package that narrowly passed Friday.
Another indication of the president’s dire situation came in a 48-hour span in which he was abandoned by two of the most powerful figures in the Democratic Party: House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) and Hillary Rodham Clinton.
First, Pelosi threw in her lot with a rank-and-file rebellion against Obama’s trade initiatives on Friday, backing Democrats who blocked the legislative package that otherwise had bipartisan support to advance. Then on Sunday afternoon, Clinton used her high-profile status as the front-runner for her party’s presidential nomination to distance herself from the president on trade.
The moves left Obama without any prominent Democratic allies on Capitol Hill or running for the party’s 2016 presidential nomination promoting the 12-nation deal.
No one is declaring the trade agenda dead, but as long as Clinton and Pelosi — two of the most influential voices with the party’s base — decline to help the president secure the votes, its prospects are pretty dim.
The former secretary of state steered clear of the legislative specifics but signaled Sunday that she will stand with Pelosi, who waited until late in the game to state a position.
Currently, the House is stuck in its consideration of a legislative package with the centerpiece of Trade Promotion Authority, which won approval on a 219-to-211 vote. It would set up expedited procedures for Congress to vote on any future trade deals.
Most Democrats, along with their supporters in the labor movement, oppose expanded trade deals because, they argue, the deals help the financial bottom line of multinational corporations without doing enough to boost wages of U.S. workers or to protect human rights of overseas workers.
Together, they have tried to sink the fast-track legislation because without it, Obama has said he will not be able to complete negotiations on the Trans-Pacific Partnership of 12 Pacific Rim nations.
Once it became clear last week that fast-track authority had majority support, opponents turned to another piece of the legislation to stall the momentum. Under the complicated process deployed by Boehner, Democrats were expected to carry the lion’s share of votes for a worker-retraining program to help those displaced by global competition, while Republicans would deliver a vast majority of the votes for trade promotion.
Instead, Democrats overwhelmingly rejected a program that they otherwise support. The other pieces won approval, but without the passage of the worker program, Democrats were able to hold Obama’s broader trade agenda hostage in the House.
By giving tacit support to Pelosi’s move, after weeks of silence on the issue, Clinton essentially sanctioned the hardball tactics deployed by union officials.
“The president should listen to and work with his allies in Congress, starting with Nancy Pelosi,” Clinton said Sunday at her first Iowa campaign stop. She said that portions of the TPP were not good enough and that “there should be no deal” unless they are changed.
White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough spoke with Pelosi on Monday, although Obama had not, according to the president’s aides.
The president and his aides “continue to be confident that it’s possible to get it done,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest said at his daily briefing. He referred to the delay as “a procedural issue that we have to manage” but insisted there is a bipartisan majority in the House that supports the stalled worker-retraining program.
Republicans remained optimistic, even in the absence of a firm path forward. “There are options, and we will put all of the options on the table,” House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) told reporters early Monday.
The path is harder to find, however, without vocal support from Pelosi or Clinton.
Just 40 Democrats voted to support worker training, joined by 86 Republicans. Turning around that many votes will be daunting.
Boehner could try to redraft the debate’s rules and turn it into a single vote, as the Senate did last month, but advisers said such a move might spark a conservative revolt and upend the carefully crafted coalition — the TPA (fast-track) portion of the vote passed Friday by just a handful of votes.
Connolly said he would support Boehner if he tried to pass trade authority without the worker program and send it back to the Senate, laying blame at the hands of liberal Democrats if that meant that the worker retraining funds dried up. “I will not hold TPA hostage to that tactic. That’s their tactic, not mine,” he said.
However, even if almost all of the 28 Democrats who supported TPA went along with that strategy, it faces a difficult road in the Senate. There, Democrats spent many weeks carefully negotiating each layer of the package, and some were already voicing concerns Monday about the idea of getting just TPA sent back to the Senate without any guarantee for the other critical piece of the legislation.
Supporters now view time as an enemy.
“I think the longer something like this sits out there, the harder it is to bring it back. I think before the summer’s out, you’ve got to have it done. And I think each week that it goes on may make it a little more difficult,” McCarthy said.