With Obama's Trade Agenda In The Balance, Democrats May Mount Last-Minute Revolt

06/11/2015 04:17 pm ET | Updated Jun 11, 2015

WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama’s work to craft a historic trade deal with 11 Pacific Rim nations could be less than a day away from taking a deep blow that would unravel it all -- and it’s a hit that would be delivered by his own party.

The question is whether progressive Democrats are willing to kill trade adjustment assistance, funding that helps workers who have been displaced from their jobs by trade deals like the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Democrats leaving an emergency caucus meeting on Thursday suggested that anti-trade Democrats may reject TAA in order to derail legislation granting Obama fast-track authority to speed trade deals through Congress.

The fast-track legislation, also known as Trade Promotion Authority, is up for a vote on Friday. Obama needs fast-track to seal the TPP deal, as well as to ensure he can push any other trade deals through Congress with an up-or-down vote, rather than worrying about amendments or a filibuster. But if TAA is killed, fast-track will go down with it.

“People are concerned of this strategy saying ‘vote no on TAA’ -- that kills everything,” said Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas), who favors Obama's trade agenda, adding that it’s a “brilliant” strategy.

Democrats support TAA funding in theory. They fought against a proposal that would have cut Medicare to pay for the assistance and, as Cuellar pointed out, Democrats tend to be “for the worker.” But because so many Democrats are upset with Obama’s trade agenda, they see it as a tool to kill fast-track authority. They also point to TAA's failure to include public sector employees in those covered.

With less than a day to go before the final vote on the trade package, White House Chief Of Staff Denis McDonough, Treasury Secretary Jack Lew and Labor Secretary Tom Perez rushed to Capitol Hill on Thursday afternoon to meet with House Democrats. A number of Democrats said that the three officials' message, while not stated outright, was implied loud and clear: This vote is for the president.

In an effort to convince liberal Democrats against voting down TAA, Lew urged the caucus to “treat this moment for what it is: a life-or-death moment for TAA,” according an aide who was in the room.

Cuellar explained that the developments have created a slight panic among trade proponents, leading U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman to call him multiple times over the last two days.

“Now that means that now we got to do double counts,” he said. “I was in the middle of Appropriations. They called me -- Ambassador Froman -- I spoke to him yesterday, I spoke to him today. He called me and said ‘Hey, TAA.’ I said, ‘I understand, we are working on it.’”

Pressed on why the issue had come up, Cuellar laughed and said, “Honestly, when you got leverage ... I don’t blame anybody.”

As Democrats trickled out of the caucus meeting, one thing was clear: Calls from the administration and from opponents had failed to change anyone’s mind. The uncertainty surrounding the fate of the two pieces of legislation speaks to how difficult the trade debate has been for Democrats, with many finding themselves for the first time at odds with the president.

The strategy to kill TAA emerged just as House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) stomped out a fire on the Medicare offset, working with House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) late Tuesday night to find an alternative funding mechanism.

Pelosi is likely the lawmaker feeling the most pressure from both sides.

“Once a year, I have a Coca-Cola,” Pelosi said Thursday, holding up the soda. “And today, I needed a drink,” she continued, to laughter from the members, according to the aide who was there.

Rep. Jim Himes (D-Conn.) agreed that Pelosi's stance had been crucial for the caucus.

“I really came to understand the deal the leader struck on TAA, and the question for the rest of the caucus is, is that enough?” Himes told reporters after the meeting.

Cuellar echoed that sentiment, adding that the debate has put Pelosi in “in the middle.”

“She doesn’t want the president to fail, but at the same time she’s got a lot of very progressive Democrats and she is doing a great job trying to balance everything,” Cuellar said.

Still, the progressive wing remained unconvinced, and those against fast-track and TAA didn’t seem to be changing their strategy after the meeting with the three administration officials.

Even while the officials were speaking to the caucus, two lawmakers who had been undecided -- Reps. Denny Heck and Adam Smith, both of Washington -- released statements of opposition to fast-track, vowing to vote no on giving Obama the authority.

Additionally, an aide to Rep. Sander Levin (D-Mich.), the top Democrat on the House Ways and Means Committee, confirmed that the congressman subscribed to the strategy of voting against TAA in order to bring down fast-track.

Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), an early supporter of Obama when he first ran for office, railed on Thursday against both the pending TPP deal and fast-track authority.

“I’m not so sure many votes were changed. I have great affection, incredible respect and support for the president,” she said, but quickly added that Obama’s decision to bring his trade agenda to Congress “was a mistake.”

“I understand the interest in having more influence, but this is a bad deal for the U.S. and for our workers,” she said.

Leading up to Friday’s vote, pro-trade Democrats like Cuellar plan to whip as many members of their party -- and as many Republicans -- as they can on behalf of the White House. But nearly coming out of the meeting admitted that the vote will be close.

Given all the moving parts, the scene coming out of Thursday’s emergency caucus meeting was both chaotic and tense.

“We have this situation that you’re going after your own. Keep in mind you never burn your bridge,” Cuellar said. “There are some people that are literally acting like this is the last vote ever to be taken by Congress, and it’s not the last vote we are going to take.”

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