But inside the confines of the House, the tandem moves made perfect sense: It is, multiple Democratic lawmakers said, the ultimate expression of the “walk and chew gum” mentality that Pelosi and other party leaders have been pushing since the earliest days of their majority, and it generated nearly universal acclaim from lawmakers Tuesday.
“Imagine if we had caved to those people who would have said, ‘Why give the president a win?’ ” asked Rep. Jim Himes (D-Conn.), a member of the House Intelligence Committee who has pushed for impeachment. “We’d be torpedoing something that is good for the American people for political gain. That’s what the president is being impeached for, so we’re not going to do that.”
Those arguments have rung hollow for the chorus of left-wing voices, including former Obama White House communications director Dan Pfeiffer and economist Paul Krugman, who argued this week that Democrats should have held out on Trump — allowing a Democratic successor to cut a more favorable deal than the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement, also known as the USMCA.
“Trump will claim it as a triumph. Why give him that?” Krugman asked on Twitter.
Those arguments have found little traction inside the peculiar political hothouse that is the House Democratic Caucus, where the vast majority of lawmakers consider Trump to be unfit for office but not so repulsive as to reject every matter he chooses to touch — especially when that matter is replacing the widely despised 1993 North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA.
While Trump can herald the deal, so can House Democrats looking for a legislative accomplishment to promote in their reelection bids. This is especially true for the dozens of Democratic incumbents running in districts that Trump won in 2016.
Pelosi announced the trade accord Tuesday alongside House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Richard E. Neal (D-Mass.) and more than two dozen rank-and-file lawmakers representing the ideological kaleidoscope of the caucus — from liberal Reps. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) and Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) to moderate Reps. Stephanie Murphy (D-Fla.) and Colin Allred (D-Tex.).
“We came a long way from what he originally proposed,” Pelosi said. “There are some people who said: ‘Why make it look like he has a victory?’ Well, we’re declaring victory for the American worker.”
The changes negotiated by Democrats made the agreement more worker-friendly, beefing up dispute-resolution procedures and toughening the process for verifying labor standards in Mexico — a key weakness of NAFTA. Democrats also won concessions from Trump on patent protections for certain pharmaceuticals and enforcement of environmental standards.
Those concessions have given Democrats an opening to argue that the trade deal isn’t the clear-cut win for Trump that he will undoubtedly claim it is.
Trump said Tuesday that he saw the dueling issues as connected. Democrats, he told reporters, agreed to the trade deal out of “embarrassment” and a need to “muffle” their ill-fated impeachment effort.
Pelosi’s victory lap came in stark contrast to her subdued appearance not two hours earlier, launching twin articles of impeachment in the ornate Rayburn Room of the Capitol — twice uttering the word “solemn” in her first sentence while wearing a sparkling brooch inscribed with the words “One Country, One Destiny.”
The timing, Pelosi insisted, was driven not by politics but by the vagaries of a congressional schedule that tends to backload major legislation into the final weeks of the year.
Her colleagues did not seem to mind.
Rep. Emanuel Cleaver II (D-Mo.), who represents Kansas City and a rural swath surrounding it, went so far as to call the trade deal “more important than the impeachment” to his district, citing the benefits that farmers would see after taking “two strikes” from flooding and Trump’s trade policy.
“If it . . . had become the victim of some political maneuvering, like ‘we can’t give the president a victory,’ we would be in trouble,” he said. “Three strikes, and you’re out.”
Rep. Karen Bass (D-Calif.), a liberal House Judiciary Committee member who represents an urban Los Angeles district, said the perception “is that impeachment has just swallowed this entire institution. It’s not about holding victories away from the president — where we can unite and pass significant legislation like this . . . I think it’s very important that we move forward with those.”
A few old-school pro-labor liberals, such as Reps. Andy Levin (D-Mich.) and Bill Pascrell Jr. (D-N.J.), lambasted the trade deal — calling it little better than NAFTA. But they did not go so far as to argue its ratification would distract from Trump’s impeachment.
The advancement of the trade accord alongside the impeachment articles is an outgrowth of a push from a small but influential group of freshman moderates who backed the impeachment inquiry this fall but also pushed Pelosi to keep tight reins on the process. That helped prompt a series of decisions putting the House on track to hold a final floor vote on impeachment next week, setting up a Senate trial in the new year.
Those freshmen, meanwhile, urged Democratic leaders to push through key legislative agenda items, including the new North American trade deal. Their strategy has been simple: Show up and be heard.
Where some House Democratic moderates have frequently skipped weekly caucus meetings, seeing little point in attending the closed-door confabs, the freshman class of 2018 has made it a point to attend routinely and speak up — whether on impeachment or trade or any other issue.
“Frankly, we organized,” said Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-Mich.). “Someone will text us and say, ‘We understand the USMCA is going to be on the agenda today. Really need everyone to show up. Really need everyone to speak.’ . . . And maybe someone who was trying to decide between three different meetings will then decide to go to caucus.”
That effort helped keep the pressure on House leaders, though Pelosi needed little persuasion from anyone to constantly promote Democrats’ policy agenda on health care, trade and other issues that provided the backbone for the party’s sweeping 2018 election gains in which it seized the majority.
Rep. Angie Craig (D-Minn.), who beat a GOP incumbent in a suburban Minneapolis district and has faced Republican-sponsored ads accusing her of being too focused on impeachment, said the USMCA vote would show voters Democrats have been “working all along focusing on the issues people care about.”
“This Congress has been extremely productive and is focused on the kitchen-table issues that the American people care about,” she said.
Some centrist Democrats remain skittish about backing impeachment — with a few privately floating the idea of censuring Trump to give members an alternative way to express displeasure with the president, a notion that is unlikely to gain traction with Pelosi.
One moderate Democrat present for a Monday-night discussion attended by fewer than a dozen members said conversations highlight ongoing concerns from lawmakers representing Republican-leaning districts whose constituents are unhappy with the impeachment push. But the group realizes it is much too late to stop things from moving forward, said the lawmaker, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the matter freely.
That has made cutting the trade deal an even more pressing political imperative for Pelosi, giving her most vulnerable members a concrete accomplishment going into the holiday recess — and an election year.
“It’s a big, huge victory for Blue Dog Democrats, moderate Democrats in tough districts, who want to show they can work with a president or any Republican to get stuff done even in this politically charged atmosphere,” said Rep. Kurt Schrader (D-Ore.), a co-chairman of the moderate Blue Dog Coalition.
More liberal members, such as Rep. Daniel Kildee (D-Mich.), have adopted more nuanced arguments.
Kildee said the trade deal doesn’t change the fact that Trump is “uniquely dangerous,” but “from time to time, the policies that he promotes don’t necessarily reflect the danger he presents.”
“I mean, people who commit crimes sometimes stop for a red light,” he said. “That doesn’t mean that he is not violating his oath and the Constitution.”
Paul Kane contributed to this report.