An aggressive effort by the administration to win support for President Obama’s trade agenda appears to be stuck
[Reposted from The Hill | Vicki Needham | April 14, 2015]
As few as 15 House Democrats might vote to give the president fast-track authority, according to dozens of Democratic lawmakers, business group representatives and activists on both sides of the trade fight interviewed by The Hill.
That’s far fewer than the 50 Democrats Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and other Republicans have asked the White House to deliver.
And with as many as 60 House Republicans ready to vote against giving Obama fast-track or trade promotion authority, it’s possible a vote would fail on the floor.
That would be a stinging defeat for Obama, who views trade as a key part of his second-term agenda. Without fast-track, which would make it easier for the White House to negotiate trade deals by preventing Congress from amending them, it could be almost impossible to finish negotiations with 11 Latin American and Asian countries on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) — the largest trade deal the United States has negotiated in more than a decade.
Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.), who says he is inclined to vote for fast-track, argues the administration has given little political reason for Democrats to back the president.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), labor unions and progressive groups are loudly opposing fast-track, and Democrats fear crossing the powerful constituencies.
“There’s no reward here at all, that I can see, on the horizon, for voting for this other than because you were convinced it’s the right thing to do, and you’re willing to withstand a lot of pressure,” Connolly said.
Of the administration, he says: “You want us to walk the plank; they’re not going to be there to catch me.”
Obama isn’t the first president to have trouble corralling Democrats on trade.
In 1998, only 29 Democrats voted to give then-President Clinton fast-track authority in a losing effort. Even fewer — 25 — voted to give former President George W. Bush the authority in 2002, the last time it was approved. That authority expired in 2007.
Obama has never had fast-track authority, and would be the first president without it in decades.
Connolly argued that the administration’s hand is weakened by a combination of its inability to provide political cover for Democrats, the lack of campaign support by business groups and labor’s effective lobbying.
“The universe of Democrats is pretty limited, as it always is,” he said.
Obama sought at the beginning of the year to change that dynamic.
The Office of the U.S. Trade Representative has held dozens of meetings with lawmakers. Cabinet members have also been involved in talking to and meeting with Democrats.
Obama has been involved too, holding a handful of meetings with lawmakers including Rep. Ron Kind (D-Wis.).
Critics say Obama’s effort hasn’t been enough, and Republicans say he will need to get more personally involved if fast-track authority is going to pass.
Boehner and GOP leadership face a challenge in moving fast-track because it is a top priority for Obama. That leaves some Republicans wary of backing it.
More Democratic support would not only give Boehner maneuvering room, it would allow fast-track to be presented as another bipartisan effort — easing the Speaker’s work within his own party.
The Wall Street Journal reported in March that between 50 and 60 Republicans could buck Boehner and Obama on fast-track. That would require Democrats to deliver about 32 votes.
When the administration’s effort began, the high-water mark for Democratic support was thought to be 32 Democratic votes.
Some say that figure is still obtainable, but Rep. John Larson (D-Conn.) said the number is probably closer to 15 right now.
Larson said he is leaning against it because trade is “an emotional and difficult argument” in his blue-collar district.
“But I think we owe it to the president, and to our constituents, to have an open and transparent process,” Larson said.
Larson and other Democrats say the administration needs to do a better job at convincing them — and the public — that a vote for fast-track and TPP would lead to more U.S. jobs.
Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.), a former chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, said he has told the White House it needs to “make certain that there’s enough facts there that it’s not a loss of jobs, that it creates jobs.”
“If you can’t do that, I won’t be around,” he said.
Rep. Joseph Crowley (D-N.Y.), another undecided, said the White House is active on pushing for trade, “albeit, I think, a little late, but they’re active on it.”