President Obama suffered a major defeat to his Pacific Rim free trade initiative Friday as House Democrats helped derail a key presidential priority despite his last-minute, personal plea on Capitol Hill. The House voted 302 to 126 to sink a measure to grant financial aid to displaced workers, fracturing hopes at the White House that Congress would grant Obama fast-track trade authority to complete an accord with 11 other Pacific Rim nations.
We don't often see President Obama giving lawmakers the hard sell, largely because Congress just hasn't done much in recent years. But with his trade agenda on the line, Obama has been hands-on, pressing House Democrats to back his plans. This included a rare presidential visit to Capitol Hill this morning, where he asked his ostensible allies for help.
A few hours later, House Dems responded with a rather emphatic, "No." The Washington Post reported:
For those who haven't been following the developments closely, I can appreciate why this seems a little complicated, but stick with me as we walk through what's happened. It's relatively straightforward and it's just now getting interesting.
The Senate has already passed what is commonly known as "fast track." It's not the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) itself, but it's legislation designed to streamline the process through which Congress will consider the broader trade deal.
The House did not take up the Senate bill as-is, but rather, Republican leaders split it into two -- the first vote would be on Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA), which helps workers undermined by trade deals, while the second vote would be on Trade Promotion Authority (TPA), the formal name for "fast track."
Why not vote for both at the same time? Because House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) believed, with good reason, that the Senate bill would probably fail -- too many Republicans oppose TAA, while too many Democrats oppose TPA. Splitting them gave the package a chance.
At least, that was the idea. House Dems opposed to TPA decided today to defeat TAA -- even though Democrats support TAA -- as a way of scuttling the whole deal. Indeed, it wasn't close -- TAA needed 218 votes and it received 126. After the president's direct appeals, just 40 House Democrats out of a possible 188 supported the bill.
The House soon after approved TPA, also known as the part Republicans like. But in practical terms, this means the House has passed half of the Senate bill -- the Republican part. If the chambers tried to reconcile this with the Senate version, it probably wouldn't work, since Senate Democrats who voted for "fast track" the first time wouldn't go along with a deal that lacks TAA.
So, the whole thing is dead? Not yet. On Tuesday, the House intends to try again, bringing TAA back to the floor.
Between now and Tuesday, a couple of things are going to happen. First, the White House is going to try to change a whole lot of Democrats' minds. How officials in the West Wing intend to do that is a bit of a mystery -- swaying a dozen members is tough; swaying seven dozen members in a few days is extraordinarily daunting. And as we saw today, Obama's in-person appeals aren't enough.
In the meantime, House GOP leaders will probably tell their own members, "We know you hate TAA, but if you vote for it on Tuesday, then TPA becomes law." A total of 86 House Republicans voted for TAA today; we don't know for sure how much higher that total can go.
One more angle to keep an eye on: If House Dems believe TPA might advance without TAA, this changes the equation. It's an unlikely scenario, but if this threat becomes real, then Dems suddenly have an incentive to back the bill they like anyway, concluding they might as well get something out of the process.
All things considered the odds of success on Tuesday are low. But funny things can happen in three days.
Postscript: The key moment today came when House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) announced her "no" vote on TAA, saying she wants to see a longer process with more debate and deliberation. Observers sometimes forget just how much influence Pelosi has over the caucus' direction -- her vote effectively sealed TAA's fate in advance of the vote.
If President Obama is looking for a solution before Tuesday, he'll probably need to spend some time with the former Speaker.