WASHINGTON -- Democrats rebelled against President Barack Obama's ambitious trade agenda Friday, spurning his last-second personal appeal and blocking a measure in the House that would have granted him the power to fast-track sweeping, secretive international agreements through Congress.
The Democrats' revolt focused on a provision that they would normally back -- something called Trade Adjustment Assistance, or TAA, which would pay to help retrain workers whose jobs get shipped overseas by trade deals -- knowing that killing it would bring fast-track down with it.
But weeks of telephone calls from the White House, countless meetings, negotiations, public feuds and a last-minute trip to Capitol Hill from the president himself did nothing to sway Democrats and the GOP's conservative wing against Obama's trade agenda. In an especially stinging rebuke, Obama lost the key vote, 302 to 126, despite his personal lobbying just hours before. Fast-track passed, 219 to 211.
"If TAA slows down the fast-track, I am prepared to vote against TAA," House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said on the House floor. "Because I'm sad to say it’s the only way that we will be able to slow down the fast-track. If TAA fails, the fast-track bill is stopped."
"I believe that when leader Pelosi announced that she was voting against trade adjustment assistance, that did sway votes," Rep. Steve Israel (D-N.Y.) said. "When the president came in to talk to caucus this morning for undecided members, I think he made a persuasive case. When leader Pelosi announced that she was voting against TAA for undecided members, it sealed the deal."
The TAA measure was included in the fast-track bill in a bid to win Democratic support. But it attracted opposition because funding for the program was seen as too low, and because the Senate decided to pay for it in part by cutting $700 million from Medicare.
House Republicans tried to smooth over that problem with a proposal to vote on TAA separately from the main fast-track bill -- known as Trade Promotion Authority, or TPA -- and an alternative funding structure that they said would not harm Medicare. But Democrats still felt the assistance was inadequate, and argued that the new funding structure still amounted to voting to take dollars away from Medicare.
"Unfortunately, the TAA proposal is really short for 'taking away assistance,'" said Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D-Texas) on Friday. "It includes substantially less funding than the administration has said was essential to protect those who lose their jobs through expanded trade."
"TAA should not be a bargaining chip to get a deeply flawed TPA across the finish line," said Rep. Sander Levin (D-Mich.), the top Democrat on the House Ways and Means Committee, who took to the House floor Friday even as Obama made a personal visit to Capitol Hill in an effort to sway his own party members.
With TAA defeated, Obama and Boehner have a variety of routes they can try to drive through.
GOP leadership plans to bring TAA back up by Tuesday, said Brendan Buck, a spokesman for Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), adding that there will not be another vote on TPA. Passing fast-track gives hope to Obama but if Democrats block TAA again on Tuesday, it will further delay his agenda from moving forward. And if Democrats do that, they run the risk of Republicans pushing through a fast-track bill without it, essentially killing the job assistance program.
"POTUS has the weekend to work the vote," said one GOP leadership aide. At one point during the TAA roll call, Republicans had as many as 93 yes votes. Once it became clear it was going down, seven switched and voted no, but Republicans know they're there if they need them in a pinch next time. That means that to get to 217 Democrats would need 124 votes. They only won 40 votes on Thursday.
"They have a mountain to climb," said Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), leaving the Capitol.
Many Democrats, though, are worried that if they continue to vote against trade assistance, the program will disappear.
After the vote on Friday, Rep. John Delaney (D-Md.) said he plans to warn his colleagues against defeating TAA a second time.
"Well, what I’ve told my colleagues there’s some chance this program goes away forever," Delaney, who support fast-track, told reporters after the vote. "If we don’t support this program, we the Democrats have killed a program that’s available for workers that are displaced by globalization -- no Democrat has ever voted in opposition to this before."
Delaney said Democrats should listen to Labor Secretary Tom Perez, who was pounding the table during meetings with the caucus saying, "they didn't think they would get this good a TAA program."
Much of the caucus meeting Thursday was devoted to gaming out such a scenario. If Democrats do hang tough and vote no Tuesday, Obama and House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) could try to pass fast-track without TAA. They won such a vote Thursday, but there was a sense of symbolism to it, as TPA could not become law without TAA attached to it, because of the way the House rule was structured. Nobody knows if the Democrats who voted for the symbolic TPA would vote for it under new conditions, without TAA, knowing that it could go back to the Senate and become law.
However, the original fast-track passed the Senate with only 62 votes, two more than the 60 needed to overcome a filibuster. Strip away trade assistance, and you are likely to lose some Democratic votes. In that scenario, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) could bring TPA to the Senate floor with a promise to do TAA later. The thinking would be that if Congress shows it can pass TPA without TAA, backers of TAA will fall in line, because Republicans are all too happy to pass the trade bill with no assistance to dislocated workers at all.
Some Republicans view TAA as essentially a wasteful welfare program, and with Democrats voting no, there were not enough members of the majority party to pass the measure.
Doggett said Obama and the administration had only themselves to blame, claiming they'd ignored the long-running complaints from Democrats that the fast-track measure fails to protect workers, environmental standards and financial regulations, and does nothing to stop unfair currency manipulation.
"What really needs adjusting here today is the no-compromise, no-amendment attitude on trade," said Doggett. "This vote wouldn't be so close if this process hadn't been so closed."
Tensions ran high leading into the vote, and Obama's visit followed a full-court press by administration officials in a Capitol Hill meeting Thursday. White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough, Labor Secretary Tom Perez and Treasury Secretary Jack Lew failed to win over more Democrats, despite pleas that all but asked Democrats to vote for the agenda because the president needed them. Obama also pushed his cause at the annual congressional baseball game Thursday night, apparently to no avail.
Democrats had repeatedly asked for the administration to make the looming trade deals public before seeking the fast-track power, which lets presidents shove trade pacts quickly through Congress on simple majority votes with no amendments allowed.
The TPA bill only calls for making the deals public after the international negotiators finalize them. There would then be a two-month period to scrutinize the agreements before the president signed them. Congress would still vote, but the pacts would be all but certain to pass in a GOP-controlled House and Senate.
"We in Congress will be in the back seat, not in the falsely claimed driver's seat," said Levin on Friday.
Ryan, the chairman of the Ways and Means Committee who is spearheading the trade push, argued passionately in favor of the deals, saying they were the only way for America to compete in an increasingly globalized economy where many other countries are cutting their own trade agreements that leave out the United States.
"Ninety-five percent of the world's consumers, they don't live in this country," Ryan said Friday. "So if we want to create more jobs in America, we've got to make more things here in America, and send them over there."
"While the world has been moving full speed ahead," he went on, "we have been standing still."
This article has been updated throughout.
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