The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

House revives Obama’s trade agenda with passage of fast track bill

“I’m confident that we’re in a pretty good place,” House Speaker John Boehner said before Thursday’s vote to grant Obama “fast track” authority to negotiate trade deals (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

The House resurrected the centerpiece of President Obama’s trade agenda Thursday, six days after his fellow Democrats dealt him a dramatic setback that spurned a months-long lobbying effort on the president’s part.

Thursday’s 218-to-208 vote to grant Obama “fast track” authority to negotiate trade deals — including the controversial 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership — is a win for the president, but it is not yet a victory.

It is the first in a complicated series of moves to get around a blockade set up by liberal House Democrats against the president’s trade agenda.

The original plan was complicated enough — four separate bills, two of them packaged in one piece for the Senate, but then split apart for House consideration into four votes. Since that initial path blew up last week, Obama’s supporters have crafted an exponentially more difficult bridge to revive and approve the trade legislation.

“This is a 60-yard field goal, into the wind. So, good luck, it may work,” said Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), a deep skeptic of the new process who nevertheless supports the effort. “You’re trying to create a cocktail here with a little margin for error, no margin for error. But, anyway, I’m willing to give it a whirl.”

Said House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) shortly before the vote: “I’m confident that we’re in a pretty good place.”

The prospects for success hinge on a commodity that is on the verge of extinction in Washington these days: trust.

Republicans must trust Democrats, and Democrats must trust Democrats, and most of all they must put their faith in Obama to back up his commitments made in the past week.

“Trust, trust is the key; you got it, trust,” Sen. Thomas R. Carper (Del.), the most ardent Democratic supporter of the trade agenda, said Wednesday before meeting with the president. “Trust rules the day. A lack thereof destroys it.”

By Thursday afternoon, the first moves had been made to begin the trust-building exercises. The House vote was nearly identical to last week’s roll call on the fast-track measure, as the same 28 Democrats who support Obama’s trade measures linked arms with 190 Republicans to approve the plan and send it to the Senate. There, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) plans to set up key votes early next week.

If supporters of the trade agenda are successful, Congress will approve — possibly all next week — the fast-track legislation, also known as Trade Promotion Authority, or TPA, that sets specific time limits for the consideration of trade deals; funding for retraining workers who have lost their jobs because of global competition, known as Trade Adjustment Assistance, or TAA; and a bill extending existing trade preference agreements.

Some House Democrats remain deeply opposed to the emerging effort to get around their opposition, believing expanded trade often leads to U.S. job losses and depressed wages because corporations search for cheaper labor overseas.

“Same result as the Titanic, I’d say,” Rep. Xavier Becerra (Calif.), the No. 4 House Democratic leader, predicted of the new strategy, likening it to a “reshuffling” of the furniture on the ill-fated ship.

Becerra was one of more than 140 House Democrats who upended the original plan for advancing the trade agenda. After the Senate approved the legislation last month, Boehner set up a complex plan for approving Obama’s initiatives in the House so that Republicans could vote for pieces that they believed in and Democrats could support the parts they ideologically believed in.

One bill, reauthorizing the African Growth and Opportunity Act and other existing trade preference accords, won overwhelming bipartisan support in the House and Senate, the piece of the puzzle that seemed to have the clearest shot into law.

The new fast-track-only bill is likely to win approval next week in the Senate, if more than dozen Democrats there put their faith in Boehner and House Democrats.

Last week, on the vote to reauthorize TAA, the worker program, a vast majority of Democrats backed off their support for that funding so they could stall the entire bill.

Since that vote, 40 Democrats and Obama have spent several days in constant phone calls and meetings with Republicans building a new plan to win approval for each piece, because most pro-trade Democrats demand money for worker retraining in exchange for fast-track authority.

“We’re as clear as we can be: TAA and TPA both need to pass. We’ll see what happens and what the House does, and hopefully everybody will come to their senses,” said Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), a trusted negotiator among the competing factions.

To meet Murray’s demand, McConnell would take the popular African trade bill — which needs to be considered again by the Senate — and amend it to include the worker-training funds and send it back to the House.

Among the 14 Senate Democrats who have already voted for fast-track, there is deep doubt that House Democrats will come around to voting for legislation that they support.

“I don’t think there’s any bankable guarantees in this building right now,” said Sen. Christopher A. Coons (D-Del.), a supporter of Obama’s trade agenda who has also been the Senate’s main supporter of the African trade bill, AGOA. “My hope is that AGOA is not collateral damage in what is a pretty fundamental fight over trade policy.”

Some pro-trade Democrats believe Obama may have to actually sign the fast-track authority bill for liberal Democrats to face a take-it-or-leave-it offer to get both the African trade promotion and TAA bills.

“It is going to be hard to see votes switch. At some point there is going have to be some ­de-linkage there and the Democrats need to come home and protect the program that we’ve fought for for years,” said Rep. Ron Kind (D-Wis.), a leader of pro-trade New Democratic Coalition.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski ­(R-Alaska), a supporter of every piece of Obama’s trade agenda, said her daily exercise includes being “ever the optimist” that Congress will move past the ideological divides to get things done despite the intense efforts in some corners.

“I want to believe every day there’s some little building block,” Murkowski said. “That’s what we’re working on — trust, that five-letter word.”