The fight over President Obama's trade agenda has gotten so ugly that one of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi's closest friends in Congress accused her of subverting the will of House Democrats at a closed-door meeting of top party leaders on Wednesday, according to five sources.
"With all due respect," Rep. Rosa DeLauro said to Pelosi, you've "misread" the caucus. It might not sound like much, but that's a stiff charge. It suggests that Pelosi, the best vote counter of her era, is either slipping or intentionally undermining her colleagues. That was a bridge too far for Pelosi. Her aides began clearing the room of staff to limit the number of witnesses while she told the lawmakers who remained in the meeting that she's been trying to get the best possible deal for American workers.
Ultimately, DeLauro has become the point of labor's spear in trying to defeat a bill that would give Obama fast-track authority to negotiate trade deals. And Pelosi, who is claiming neutrality, has become a shield giving space for the White House and Speaker John Boehner to shepherd the trade bill through the House floor.
The House is expected to begin consideration of three trade-related measures on Friday: fast-track authority for the president (which is also known as Trade Promotion Authority or TPA), a Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA) package for training workers affected by trade, and a bill extending preferential treatment to certain trading partners and goods. House Republican leaders have said that if the TAA bill fails, they won't move on to the fast-track bill. That's important because it makes the TAA measure a juicy target for those who want to stop the fast-track bill in its tracks.
Ostensibly, the fight on Wednesday was over the TAA bill. Though Pelosi already had persuaded Boehner to drop a provision that would have required Democrats to vote for a Medicare cut to get the worker-training money, DeLauro was pushing for Pelosi to insist on more changes to the TAA measure. DeLauro argued that revenue raised from a Medicare dialysis provision should be plowed back into Medicare and, similarly, that money raised by closing a loophole that lets wealthy expats claim child tax credits should be reserved for bolstering the child tax credit for others.
What's really going on, several sources concluded, is that DeLauro, a close ally of organized labor, won't accept yes for an answer on the TAA bill because she wants to kill fast-track authority for the president. And she said as much at the closed-door meeting of House Democratic leaders, telling Pelosi that the majority of the Democratic caucus doesn't support the fast-track bill.
The question isn't so much how Democrats will vote. The vast majority will be against the fast-track bill either because they don't like it or because of the pressure being applied to them by liberal groups. But many Democrats hope it will pass without their votes, either because they think it's a good deal or because they don't want to deny Obama a power that was granted to previous presidents.
DeLauro's strategy is consistent with that of labor unions, which have targeted the TAA bill for defeat because they think that's their best chance to derail the fast-track measure. The AFL-CIO's legislative director sent a letter to lawmakers on Wednesday asking them to vote against TAA, which labor would normally support.
At the same time, progressives have been frustrated with Pelosi because she has refused to articulate her own position on trade — beyond trying to sweeten the pot on TAA — and is quite obviously working with the White House and Boehner to shape the debate in a way that is conducive to passing both the TAA and fast-track bills. Pelosi also met with several senior administration officials, including White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough and Labor Secretary Tom Perez, on Wednesday to talk about the trade bills.