House Democrats’ rejection of a key trade bill Friday ensures the uncomfortable issue will remain an open question during the formal roll out of Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign in coming days.
The shocking rejection of part of a trade package sought by President Obama helped clarify the battle lines in the party’s civil war over trade, and could amp up pressure on Clinton to take a clearer stand on trade during her carefully crafted kick-off tour.
While Clinton technically launched her White House bid in April, a large outdoor rally Saturday in New York City will mark the beginning of her full-fledged campaign. A swing through Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada will follow next week.
Clinton has so far declined to take a clear position on Trade Promotion Authority, the congressional authorization that would “fast-track” future approval of free trade treaties. If Clinton were in the Senate, she would have had to cast a vote on the controversial measure last month. And if she were in the House, she would have had to vote on it Friday.
The issue has been extraordinarily contentious inside in the Democratic Party, driving a wedge between President Obama and most congressional Democrats.
In a stunning move, House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi came out against the White House just moments before Friday’s TPA vote in a speech on the House floor -- after she seemed to be coming around to Obama’s side in recent days.
Pelosi was joined by 143 other House Democrats who voted against a related measure, which is needed procedurally to advance Trade Promotion Authority to President Obama’s desk. The Senate already approved the measure, but only 14 of the chambers 44 Democrats voted in favor.
Despite Friday’s vote, TPA is not dead. Premature eulogies for TPA were written when it failed on its first vote in the Senate, only to have the measure pass days later.
The White House downplayed the setback Friday. Press Secretary Josh Earnest called it “procedural snafu” in his daily briefing with reporters. The House will take up TPA again next week.
That timing could be a fly in the ointment in Clinton’s otherwise meticulously crafted campaign roll out planned for the next six days. It means that Clinton can expect to face tough questions on TPA in coming days. And it could complicate efforts to win over restive liberals with a bold progressive agenda.
And the timing raises the stakes, since it means whatever Clinton says on TPA in the next few days – if anything – could have immediate real-world consequences in Congress ahead of a critical vote. Advocates on both sides of the issue say privately that the likely Democratic nominee has the clout to swing key votes.
Lately, Clinton has been facing increasing pressure from the left to take a stance on the trade.
On Thursday, Sen. Bernie Sanders, Clinton’s challenger in the Democratic primary, said he is offended by Clinton’s silence on trade. "Secretary Clinton, if she's against this, we need her to speak out right now,” he told reporters at a Washington breakfast organized by the Christian Science Monitor. "I don't understand how, on an issue of such huge consequence, you don't have an opinion.”
Fellow Democratic rival Martin O’Malley, meanwhile, sent supporters a “quick note from Iowa” to reminded them where he stands on the issue. “I've been against Fast Track for months, and today I'm reiterating: I oppose Fast Track, and secret trade deals,” he wrote in a veiled jab at Clinton.
More than 70,000 have signed a petition circulated by the liberal group CREDO Action to demand Clinton “immediately announce [her] public opposition to Fast Track trade authority.”
As Secretary of State, Clinton helped negotiate the Trans-Pacific Partnership Treaty, a massive trade deal with a dozen Pacific Rim countries. She has backed away from the treaty a bit, saying in a statement that she would only support trade deals that meet strict criteria.
The Trans-Pacific Partnership is not finished, and nor accessible to the public, so it remains a somewhat abstract issue. Clinton has opted to wait to take a firmer stand on it once she can read it.
But Trade Promotion Authority, which is being debated in Congress right now, is a different matter. It will be harder for Clinton to find reasons to avoid taking a position on TPA.
She has yet to take a stand because there are major downsides for her in either position. On one side is the Democratic base, whom she needs to win over in the Democratic primary, along with many members of Congress and even leaders like Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid and now Pelosi.
On the other side is President Obama. She needs his presidency to succeed in its final 18 months so Americans will want to choose to elect another Democrat to the White House. Opposing his top legislative agenda item, when it’s already in such weak position, could imperil his political strength.
During Saturday’s rally at a park named after Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Clinton will invoke the legacy of the towering Democratic president. If she wants to come out for Obama’s trade policy and paint in a progressive light, she could point to Roosevelt. It was Roosevelt who signed the Reciprocal Trade Agreements Act, a landmark law that paved the way for decades of American free trade agreements. It did that, in part, by giving the president authority not too dissimilar from the current TPA bill.