Forget The Senate: Obama's Real Problem On Trade Is In The House

05/14/2015 07:00 am ET | Updated May 14, 2015

WASHINGTON -- The focus of attention over the course of the trade debate has been the increasingly caustic battle between Democrats in the Senate and President Barack Obama in the White House. A deal reached Wednesday has paved a way forward, but the road will get bumpy again as soon as the debate makes its way across the Capitol to the House.

Obama and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) have been able to count on broad and deep support for the trade agenda, which is less about trade and more about smoothing out regulations to benefit multinational corporations. House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) doesn't have that same luxury when it comes to granting so-called fast-track authority to Obama.

The president is seeking expedited, or fast-track, authority to shepherd trade deals through Congress, particularly the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a major trade pact currently being negotiated by the U.S. with 11 Pacific nations. But the depth of distrust and animosity that core tea party voters have for the president makes allying with him politically risky for anyone in a sharply conservative district. Many House Republicans have spent years telling constituents the president lawlessly overreaches his authority, making a vote to give him more authority tricky. Conservative talk radio, meanwhile, has made opposition to the agreement a battle cry.

Rep. Mark Amodei (R-Nev.) said the optics of voting for the president’s agenda makes members uneasy. It was a main point of discussion in the morning caucus meeting, and will determine whether Republicans have the votes to push through fast-track authority.

“We talked about it today. You know, there's about three different things going on that the answer to that question depends on. Are you antsy about doing what the president wants? Are you excited about doing what Harry Reid doesn't want? And the third one is there's actually an issue out there. If you study the issue, which seems like it's always a challenge around here, I'm pretty comfortable with it,” Amodei said.

Rep. Matt Salmon (R-Ariz.) put it another way, saying the president’s lack of engagement has left lawmakers asking if they should help him at all.

“The president I don’t think has any political capital at all with this place, and it’s coming to bear right now because the president needs a real heavy lift, and nobody feels any real connection with him or like they owe him anything,” Salmon told The Huffington Post.

Salmon plans to vote for the president’s trade agenda when it hits the House floor, but said he doesn’t think House GOP leadership has the votes.

“I’m voting for it not because of him but in spite of him. I don’t think he could pick me out of a crowd, which is so different from when I was here when Bill Clinton was president because President Clinton was really engaged with everybody,” Salmon said.

Salmon added that to get enough votes, Obama will have to “put his pen and phone in his drawer and come ask for some help.”

People close to House leadership say Boehner expects to lose, at this point, roughly 50 Republican votes. Lobbyists and staffers on both sides of the issue said they think such a count is highly optimistic, and that House Republicans realistically have around 140 "yes" votes.

House Republicans start with 245 members and, thanks to two vacant seats, need 217 votes for a majority. Lobbyists and House staffers don't expect more than 20 Democrats to join with Republicans -- the number is said to be at 17 as of now -- which would put the tally just shy of the number needed, giving Boehner and Obama a fighting chance to get over the top. But if the GOP is indeed only in the 140s and needs to flip 50 undecided or "no" votes between now and the time of the vote, the challenge is a daunting one. Even getting to 170 would leave trade-bill backers well short.

In such a scenario, lobbyists and operatives say, Boehner would elect not to bring the bill to the floor at all, so as not to set an anti-trade precedent and to spare his members a vote that angers the business community with one decision and the tea party with the other.

Operatives involved in previous trade battles noted that past presidents and speakers had bushels full of carrots to hand out to wavering members. With earmarks gone, leadership has little to give out.

Salmon put leadership closer to the 170 mark, but still said it’s going to be a “really heavy lift” to get to 218.

“Right now, I think if it were to come up to the floor today, I don’t think it would pass,” Salmon said. “My hunch ... and this is a gut feeling, I think it’s pretty accurate, I think there are 170 to 180 Republican votes, and right now there are less than 20 Democrats -- that doesn’t get us there.”

Salmon noted that he thinks once more conservatives realize that part of the Trans-Pacific Partnership will “have a big hand geopolitically in a way that kind of puts a check on China,” then more will support the president’s agenda.

Amodei said he expects leadership to get the votes needed to push through the legislation. "I think they're going to work it, which kind of surprised me. I thought it would be 'The Senate didn't do it, so we'll see you later. Bye.' But the discussion this morning was 'We think this is an opportunity and we're going to work it,’” Amodei said.

It’s a sentiment Rep. Doug LaMalfa (R-Calif.) expressed as well.

“Oh, I think it's building. You know, with the right nuances, I think it will get there. I don't know if it will be next week or whenever, but it will get there," LaMalfa said.

Boehner himself said earlier on Wednesday he was “optimistic,” despite the stalled Senate vote a day prior.

“It’s a bump in the road. At the end of the day I think there is a majority in the House and Senate for giving the president trade promotion authority,” Boehner told reporters on Wednesday. “I’m hopeful the Senate will act soon, and when the Senate does, I expect we will act shortly thereafter.”

The Senate reached a deal on Wednesday, ending the impasse with Democrats. Under it, Senate Republican leadership agreed to give Democrats a vote on a customs enforcement bill with a currency component, and a vote on an African trade deal. The former is a key vote for Democrats, as it includes protections they feared would be lost.

The customs enforcement bill would toughen up punishments for businesses and countries that cheat trade rules by underpricing goods, and ban imports of goods made with forced child labor. Somewhat more importantly, the currency manipulation measure within the bill would clamp down on countries that seek to make their goods cheaper by devaluing their own currencies. It’s a major priority for Democrats, but by agreeing to hold a vote on it that's separate from the fast-track bill, it all but guarantees the House will not take it up.

If House GOP leadership chooses to ignore the bills Democrats demanded votes on in the Senate, and they likely will, House Democrats may try to push the issue.

In the end, chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, Javier Becerra, said Republicans shouldn’t expect Democrats to help them out on trade.

“I don’t believe that Republican leaders should count on Democrats to bail them out of their bill, Becerra said.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this post said Republicans need 218 votes for a majority in the House. Because of vacant seats right now, only 217 votes are needed for a majority.

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