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How Democrats could derail Obama's push for an Asian trade deal

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) has been trying to help Obama pass his trade package.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) has been trying to help Obama pass his trade package.
Mark Wilson/Getty Images

On Friday, the House of Representatives will hold two key votes that could determine the fate of President Obama's trade agenda.

The House is breaking up the trade bill already passed by the Senate into two parts. One part would strengthen Obama's ability to negotiate an Asian trade pact, and is supported by the Republican majority in the House. The other would extend a program called Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA), which traditionally has had broad Democratic support. Both need to pass if the Senate bill is to become law. And this gives the House's Democratic minority an opportunity to derail the trade package by voting down the TAA portion of the bill.

The TAA vote will be close. Democrats know that backing TAA will help pass an overall trade package many of them don't like, and some aren't convinced the TAA package is generous enough to merit their support. Obama and the House Republican leadership have been working together all week to corral the majority they need for passage.

Here's how Friday's vote will go, and what's at stake.

The House is trying to pass the Senate bill in two parts

Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) and President Obama have been working together to pass the trade package. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

The trade legislation the Senate passed last month would do two things. First, it grants Obama Trade Promotion Authority (TPA), which guarantees that any trade deals he negotiates get a prompt up-or-down vote in Congress. The White House has said this is essential for getting his Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiated, because America's trading partners will be more willing to put their best offers on the table if they know it has a good chance of approval in Congress.

The Senate bill also included an extension of trade adjustment assistance (TAA). This is a package of subsidies that help workers who have been displaced by trade. While there's broad consensus among economists that freer trade is good for the economy as a whole, it can hurt particular groups of workers in industries that face stiffer competition. TAA programs try to cushion the blow by offering these workers financial support, training, relocation assistance, and other help in learning new skills and finding a new job.

Most Democrats like TAA but are skeptical of TPA. Most Republicans like TPA but are skeptical of TAA. And that created a dilemma for the House's Republican leadership: if they introduced the Senate bill, they might wind up with Democrats voting no over TPA and Republicans voting no over TAA, killing the bill.

So instead, Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) is holding two separate votes. First he'll hold a vote on TAA, counting on House Democrats — with aggressive lobbying from President Obama — to get it over the finish line. Then he'll try to pass TPA using mostly Republican votes. That will allow the House to pass language matching the Senate's trade bill without having to hold a vote on the overall package.

Lobbying of Democrats hasn't gone well

The problem with this strategy is that opponents of the Trans-Pacific Partnership aren't stupid. They know that Democrats voting for TAA makes the passage of the overall trade package more likely. And so TPP opponents — especially labor groups — have been aggressively lobbying Democrats to vote no on TAA language they would otherwise support.

And the lobbying campaign seems to be getting results. Uncertainty about the vote forced Obama to spend much of his day on the phone Thursday shoring up support. He even made a surprise visit to Capitol Hill to promote the legislation.

House Democrats say that if they are going to help an overall trade package they don't really care for, they should at least get some concessions from Republicans on the TAA portion. So this week there's been last-minute wrangling over the language of the TAA bill. The original TAA language would have funded the program by cutting Medicare. Republicans agreed to make some changes, but some Democrats have argued the changes aren't good enough.

Some Democrats have also pressed for changes to the way TAA deals with government workers. Traditionally, TAA has focused on private sector workers who are displaced by trade, but Democrats (and public employee unions) argue that increased trade in services means some government workers could be vulnerable to having their jobs offshored as well.

The controversy over this week's trade votes has created some serious tensions within the House Democratic caucus. At a closed-door meeting of House Democrats on Thursday, Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), the leader of the House Democrats, got into a tense exchange with one of her closest allies, Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT), over the trade deal. Pelosi has been trying to help Obama shepherd the trade legislation through the House, but DeLauro accused her of losing touch with the views of the House Democratic caucus.