clock menu more-arrow no yes

Barack Obama just had his worst day in Congress

Pool/Getty Images

Just a few hours after Barack Obama pleaded with House Democrats to "play it straight" on his trade agenda, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi — his most consistent ally in Congress — told them it was okay to ignore the request.

And did they ever.

Only 40 House Democrats sided with Obama, while 144 voted against him. It was the most stunning public rebuke of Obama by his own party in Congress in his six-plus years in office. He's lost before on Capitol Hill, but it's never been this ugly. Just two of the 10 Democrats from his home state of Illinois voted with him.

Even Pelosi, who has hazarded her own political capital to help Obama on countless issues, including trade, couldn't stand with him in the end.

"Slow down the fast track to get a better deal for the American people," she said from the well of the House chamber, finally revealing her position after weeks of studied reticence.

Specifically, Pelosi told her House colleagues she would do exactly what Obama had asked them not to: vote against Trade Adjustment Assistance for workers as a Machiavellian means of killing a higher-profile bill that would give him fast-track authority to negotiate trade deals. That amounted to explicit permission for them to follow suit and defy the president.

"I did expect we would play it straight," Obama had told Democrats Friday morning in a rare personal lobbying appearance on Capitol Hill that underscored the importance of the vote to him. "What I don't want us to do is to start becoming like the other party."

Losing Pelosi

The reason this loss on the Hill was different for some many others boils down to betrayal.

Among Democrats, there were differing reactions to Pelosi's abandonment of Obama. The harshest: she flat screwed him over. In this telling, Pelosi set the president up for a fall by carefully negotiating with the White House and House Speaker John Boehner to set up the series of trade votes, welcomed Obama to the Democratic Caucus on Friday morning to let him make his case, and then helped turn votes against him.

But that version of events doesn't take the larger picture into account. Zoom out, and she was helpful only as long as it was politically sustainable. There's no question that Pelosi, to the chagrin of many of her liberal allies, spent weeks trying to help Obama and Boehner find a way to get fast-track authority through the House. Earlier this week, one of her closest friends, Rep. Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut, accused Pelosi of having "misread" the will of the Democratic Caucus because Pelosi was trying to improve the chances of passing Trade Adjustment Assistance and the fast-track bill. With longtime allies, including labor and environmental groups, bearing down — and with no chance of saving Obama — there was little incentive for Pelosi to side with the president over the Democratic base. House Democratic Caucus Chairman Xavier Becerra, a fellow Californian, said Pelosi was trying to find a way to stand with the president. "She did everything she could, I believe, to try to get to a yes," he said.

Still, the story might not end here. Rep. Steve Israel, a New York Democrat who is close to Pelosi, said she often "sees a path where other people see dead ends." The White House and trade supporters in both parties are optimistic that the fast-track bill can be revived. After the Trade Adjustment Assistance went down — 126 to 302 — the House recorded a vote in favor of fast-track authority, 219–211. Because the bills were tied together procedurally, though, the House would have to act again to finish the fast-track measure. Some Democrats and Republicans said Friday that the show vote on the fast-track bill should put a scare into Democrats because it demonstrates that the House favors fast-track legislation with or without benefits for workers. Boehner reserved the right to call it up again, and Democrats who generally support TAA could vote for it on a second trip through the House. "I think there's more than meets the eye on this," Israel said.

Nothing to see here

The White House tried to play down the defeat on TAA, even though Obama had made such a point of asking Democrats to vote for it. Press Secretary Josh Earnest called it a "procedural snafu," and an Obama statement focused mostly on the fast-track vote.

Though his trade agenda is stalled — at least for now — Obama played the outcome as a victory.

"Today, Republicans and Democrats in the House of Representatives voted to help the United States negotiate and enforce strong, high-standard trade deals that are good for American workers and good for American businesses," he said. "That’s a good thing."

He also cast the defeat of TAA as bipartisan, even though more than twice as many Republicans as Democrats voted for it.

"Republicans and Democrats in the House failed to renew it today – and that inaction will directly hurt about 100,000 workers and their communities annually if those members of Congress don’t reconsider," he said. "I urge the House to pass TAA without delay so that more middle-class workers can earn the chance to participate and succeed in our global economy."

He might ask Democrats for their votes directly, but that didn't work so well on Friday.