The TPP Is Corporate America's 'Precious,' but the House Is Mount Doom

05/24/2015 04:32 pm ET | Updated May 24, 2016

For its proponents, the TPP is one deal to rule them all -- one deal to take economies representing 40 percent of the world's economic output and, in the darkness, bind them. The fight over fast-track authority, necessary for the TPP's passage, has already become an enthralling political saga. But here comes a plot twist: We've all been focusing on the wrong battlefield.

So far, the public spotlight has focused on the Senate -- particularly U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts), whose penchant for rallying the progressive troops seems to drive her critics to distraction, and U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), who literally wrote the book on the myths of free trade more than a decade ago. (It's called Myths of Free Trade.) GOP leaders, the White House, and corporate America had hoped the bill would sail through the Senate, creating an unstoppable wave of momentum. Thanks to Warren, Brown, and their allies, however, the Senate skirmish has turned into a nailbiter. Newspaper front pages have recounted the day-by-day plot twists as fast track has lurched its way through committee and to the Senate floor, where it finally passed Friday night.

For all the unexpected drama of the U.S. Senate, though, the real threat to fast track and the TPP has always been in the very heart of Republican political power: the House.

Although corporate Republicans like House Speaker John Boehner are eager to pass fast track, tea party insurgents are suspicious of handing President Obama (and his successor, whoever she might be) the power to negotiate trade agreements in secret and then railroad them through Congress without any possibility of amendment. According to veteran Capitol Hill observer David Hawkings, Obama is likely to face 60 Republican votes opposing fast-track authority.

So you might think that fast track might follow the path of other recent political crises, in which Boehner combines a split Republican vote with some support from Democrats.

But Democrats just aren't buying it. The reason is simple: Buyer's remorse. Democrats helped Bill Clinton pass NAFTA in 1993, only to find that none of its promises came true. The reality of NAFTA's impact can be seen in shuttered factories across the country. Today, thanks to two decades of patient organizing by elected officials like Sherrod Brown (who served in the House until 2006), U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Connecticut), and outside advocates like Public Citizen's Lori Wallach, the overwhelming share of the Democratic caucus has publicly committed to opposing fast track. The Hill's "whip list," based on public comments, counts a paltry 13 out of 188 House Democrats favoring it, with 23 on the fence. Meanwhile, activists close to the whipping operation have told me that the number of Democratic representatives committed to opposing it is north of 150 -- and that if it came to a House vote today, the measure would fail.

TPP backers have sought to portray Elizabeth Warren as the sole instigator of trouble. But as Vox's Matt Yglesias notes, nearly every Democratic interest group is united in opposition to the deal. The TPP has earned the ire of everyone from labor groups to environmentalists; from AIDS advocates to the Internet hacktivists who won on SOPA and net neutrality; from the AARP to netroots groups like, CREDO, the PCCC, and Democracy for America. If you want to get elected in a blue district, especially in a Democratic primary, these are the groups you need on your side.

The truth is that this isn't the first time that a second-term Democratic president has yearned for trade-promotion authority from a Republican-led Congress in order to pass a regional trade agreement. Bill Clinton passed NAFTA using fast-track authority left over from President Reagan. After it expired in 1994, he never got it back -- despite attempts in 1995, 1997, and 1998. The last one was defeated in a dramatic floor fight, with 171 House Democrats and 71 House Republicans voting against.

It could happen again. Thanks to a 20-year push to avoid making the same mistake twice, there is now a progressive coalition capable of tossing fast track and corporate-giveaway trade deals into the fiery depths of a congressional volcano. The House could very well be the TPP's Mount Doom.

Note: An expanded version of this post appeared on The Blue Nation Review.