The Hill: White House targets Dems in trade blitz

A frustrated White House is planning to blitz congressional Democrats on trade in the weeks following Tuesday’s State of the Union address.

[Reposted from The Hill  |  Vicki Needham  |  January 20, 2015]

President Obama is tasking every member of his Cabinet to round up votes from Democrats for fast-track negotiating power, which would give Obama leverage to complete trade negotiations by preventing Congress from amending his agreements.

About 80 House Democrats have been targeted in the effort, and Cabinet members are divvying up those names based on their personal relationships with the members.

The rest of the House Democratic Caucus, which consists of about 100 members, are seen as likely “no” votes.

The White House is making the push in part because of pressure from congressional Republicans.

While trade has emerged as a rare area of compromise between the two sides, the GOP says Obama needs to do more to get his own party in line on the issue. Republicans also want cover from Democrats if they are going to ask their own members to give Obama additional powers.

“We need the president to engage on this issue with his own party,” House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) said last week.

“We need him to make it a priority in the State of the Union,” Ryan added. “We need him to work with his party to help get votes.”

Recent history suggests Obama would be lucky to win 80 votes from Democrats on trade.

Large majorities of House Democrats voted against trade deals with Colombia, South Korea and Panama in October 2011. The high-water mark was the 66 Democrats who voted for the Panama deal, compared to 123 who voted “no.” Only 31 Democrats backed the Colombia deal, compared to 158 “no” votes.

All three trade deals fared better in the Senate, where a majority of Democrats backed the South Korea and Panama deals.

Labor unions have joined Democrats in regularly arguing that those deals hurt U.S. workers and increased income inequality. They generally put the deals in the same camp as the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement with Canada and Mexico.

Trade is a big part of the simmering fight between Obama and the left. While liberals are happy with Obama’s push for higher taxes on the wealthy and free community college, they continue to see the president as too tied to Wall Street and corporate America.

The left was furious with Obama’s nomination of Wall Street investment banker Antonio Weiss to the Treasury Department, and won a victory when the president withdrew his name from consideration.

Obama, for his part, appears frustrated with what he views as knee-jerk opposition to his trade agenda, which includes negotiations on a trade pact with the European Union and a separate Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) with 12 Latin American and Asian countries.

Obama argued last month that Democrats are still “fighting the last war” instead of looking forward to the benefits which trade can provide for U.S. workers.

“I think that there are folks in my own party and in my own constituency that have legitimate complaints about some of the trend lines of inequality, but are barking up the wrong tree when it comes to opposing TPP, and I’m going to have to make that argument,” he said at a Business Roundtable discussion in December.

National Economic Council Director Jeff Zients is organizing the Cabinet outreach and assigning different Cabinet members to different tasks. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, for example, is expected to discuss wildlife trafficking and overfishing issues.

U.S. Trade Representative Mike Froman and his team are holding meetings on Capitol Hill with whomever wants a briefing on the agreements or is interested in reading the developing text. 

One argument the Cabinet officials are making is that the U.S. will be sidelined from writing rules on trade that would protect labor groups and the environment if they don’t back fast-track and the TPP.

“This administration is changing the status quo by putting enforceable labor and environment protections at the core of these agreements, which addresses the biggest complaint on trade over the last two decades,” one administration official told The Hill.

“If we stay on the sidelines, other world powers who are already actively negotiating agreements in the same region are going to set the rules of the road. Rules that don’t protect workers or the environment,” the official said.

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