President Obama made an eleventh-hour push to save his trade agendaFriday, addressing skeptical House Democrats before a decisive series of House floor votes on fast-track trade authority and assistance for workers adversely affected by trade.
He specifically asked them not to play games with trade authority by sinking the related Trade Adjustment Assistance bill, which Democrats typically support as a salve for workers in the wake of trade deals, according to several sources in the room. Unions and some liberal Democrats have targeted that bill for defeat because a loss would kill the fast-track bill. And Obama gave the argument a partisan edge.
"I didn't expect people to vote for it," the president said of the trade power, according to one of the sources in the room. "I did expect we would play it straight. ... What I don't want us to do is to start becoming like the other party."
Obama's rare lobbying visit to Capitol Hill underscored the importance of the trade negotiating power — and the still-developing Pacific Rim pact — to the president's second-term agenda and his legacy. It also represented a gamble for a president who has a less-than-stellar reputation for forming relationships with members of Congress, even those in his own party.
Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, a Texas Democrat whose support for Obama's trade agenda was rewarded with an Air Force One trip to Germany earlier in the week, said Obama was right to make his case to Democrats directly, regardless of the risk of an embarrassing defeat.
"I think he believes in what he's doing," she said. "I don't think there's ever risk in standing up for what you believe in."
Though Democrats gave him a warm reception — applause could be heard in the hall outside a Democratic Caucus meeting when he arrived at about 10 am — most members of Obama's own party are dead set against giving him fast-track powers. And vote counters in both parties were unsure whether he would prevail on what were expected to be close votes later in the morning.
The effort to kill Obama's trade agenda, spearheaded by organized labor on the outside and Rep. Rosa DeLauro inside the House, included an odd wrinkle in which many Democrats planned to vote against Trade Adjustment Assistance for displaced workers because the defeat of that measure — which they would normally support — was expected to kill the fast-track bill.
"We're going to win today," said Rep. Bill Pascrell, a New Jersey Democrat who opposes Obama.
The debate among Democrats over the best course was so tense this week that DeLauro accused her longtime friend House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of having "misread" the will of the caucus in helping Obama and House Speaker John Boehner structure the legislation and the votes to ease the path for the fast-track bill. Asked Friday who had a better feel for the caucus, DeLauro just grinned.
Some Democrats who will vote against one or both bills are nonetheless hopeful that the deal will go through. The House was scheduled to hold the votes in succession beginning at about 11:20 am, and has since been pushed back to 12:40 pm. As a rule, Republicans don't support Trade Adjustment Assistance, and many trade-wary Democrats believe defeating that bill is their best chance to stop the fast-track bill and the Trans-Pacific Partnership deal because it will need scores of Democratic votes to pass.
Obama, whose aides have been lobbying lawmakers for months, increased his personal investment this week. He showed up unannounced at the congressional baseball game at Nationals Park in Washington on Thursday night and glad-handed with lawmakers of both parties.
Rep. Gerry Connolly, a Virginia Democrat who supports Trade Adjustment Assistance and the fast-track bill, said the responsibility for the vote isn't on Obama.
"It's on us," he said.
Rep. John Yarmuth, a Kentucky Democrat who opposes the fast-track bill, said after the meeting that he is still undecided about Trade Adjustment Assistance. White House officials have told him the president will have his back if he helps out and ends up becoming a target of labor and other groups opposed to Obama's trade agenda. But that hasn't been persuasive. "This isn't about my back," he said, pointing out that he has two Ford plants in his district and a lot of labor allies. "These are my friends."