WASHINGTON -- With President Barack Obama declaring on Tuesday his intentions to push for legislation giving him authority to move forward unilaterally with trade deals, Democrats made one thing clear: They don't have his back.
"Twenty-first century businesses, including small businesses, need to sell more American products overseas," Obama said in his State of the Union address. "That’s why I’m asking both parties to give me trade promotion authority to protect American workers, with strong new trade deals from Asia to Europe that aren’t just free, but are also fair."
He added, "It’s the right thing to do."
But it's not the right thing to do according to those in his party opposed to granting that special authority, known as trade promotion authority or fast track authority, which prevents lawmakers from shaping the details of trade deals.
"We will do what we can in the Senate to defeat this unfortunate proposal," said Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who caucuses with Democrats.
"The president cannot go around the Democrats," said Rep. Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.). "If he wants trade promotion authority, which of course is what we call fast track, he has to tell us what it’s going to be."
In a Congress run by Republicans and with the largest majority of House Republicans in 85 years, it's a steep climb for Democrats hoping to block Obama's action on trade deals. Republicans historically support trade agreements because they're supposed to boost U.S. commerce overseas. Democratic concerns stem from jobs in their districts being lost to international companies, and the deals' lack of environmental, labor and consumer protections.
Obama conceded Tuesday night that there have been consequences to trade deals, even as he advocated for more agreements.
"Look, I’m the first one to admit that past trade deals haven't always lived up to the hype, and that's why we’ve gone after countries that break the rules at our expense," he said. "But 95 percent of the world's customers live outside our borders. We can’t close ourselves off from those opportunities."
But fast track authority is the more controversial piece of the process. If Congress votes to give that authority to the president, it means lawmakers can only vote up or down on a forthcoming trade deal and can't amend it. And they don't get to see what's in the deal until after fast track authority is approved. The reason for giving that authority is so whatever delicately crafted trade deal the administration has worked out with other countries doesn't unravel at the 11th hour because of congressional tinkering.
Some Democrats are fine with Obama using that authority for a massive trade deal currently on the table, the Trans Pacific Partnership. That proposal involves 11 countries in the Asia-Pacific region and would cover nearly 40 percent of the world's economy.
"Why would we deny our president the same authority every president has had since the 1970s?" asked Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.). "We still reserve the right to vote against the ultimate agreement. But giving him the flexibility to negotiate with broad [fast track authority] is something every president’s had the last 40-plus years. I think it would be a terrible blow for Democrats to be the instrument of denying this president that authority.”
"It’s going to create some very interesting fault lines here in the Congress," he said.
Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said Democrats ready to buck Obama will do so because it's about more than just trade policy. It's about wooing the voters that he has long counted as the most important.
"I’m going to see things through the prism I’m trying to get our entire caucus to look through, and I think just about everyone agrees: Does it help the middle class?" Schumer told The Huffington Post. "I told some business leaders, even if your trade agreement raises GDP and raises corporate profits, if it doesn’t help middle-class incomes, don’t count on us."
"We may have to oppose the president on parts of his trade agenda, but it will be middle-class focused and that will be very, very good for us," he said.
Schumer admitted that Democrats might have a difficult time opposing both Obama and the GOP on trade deals. It's not a lost cause though, he said.
"When the president is on our side, we’ve got the veto, like on the [Keystone] pipeline, so that’s pretty easy. When he’s not on our side, we have to win a majority -- because they can pass things on a narrow majority, or at least 60 votes in the Senate -- it’s harder," he said. "But on an issue like trade, you’re going to find a good number of Republicans with us. Not every Republican is for trade. So that gives us some leverage."
Critics of fast track authority continued to hammer the issue Wednesday. A group of seven House Democrats, along with Sanders, described the damage caused by past trade deals crafted in secret. Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.), for one, said that Kodak, the photography company based in her district, had to slash its employees from 62,000 to 4,000 because of the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement.
"We need to rename it. It should be the well-worn dead-end track, and not fast track," said Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.).
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) was coy in a recent interview with The Huffington Post on whether she supports giving fast track authority to Obama. She's supported and opposed trade deals in the past.
"Have you seen it? No, I haven't seen it either," she said earlier this month. "It's a written document. It just depends on what it says. If it talks about transparency and consultation with Congress, that might be something."
Pelosi acknowledged that some in her party are "never going to be for any of it," and said others are criticizing fast track authority "to try to get the administration to do better" in terms of working with Congress on its contents. The bottom line, she said, is that people need to know what's in it.
"It's not just, 'The president wants it, so we should all be for it' kind of thing," Pelosi said.
Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), a close ally of Pelosi and a vocal critic of trade deals, insisted Wednesday that the House has the votes to block fast track authority.
"We are going to win this issue," she said, noting that the House blocked it in 1997. "We believe that we will win this vote to deny fast track."
DeLauro couldn't say, though, why there weren't any Republicans at Wednesday's event. She also couldn't say if she expected Pelosi to have her back on the issue, though she said Pelosi has always advocated for transparency.
"She will make up her own mind," said DeLauro.
Sabrina Siddiqui, Maxwell Tani, Julia Craven and Jesse Rifkin contributed reporting.