President Barack Obama made a rare trip to Capitol Hill Friday to press fellow Democrats to back his trade agenda, a key second-term priority, in a sign that his own party may scuttle a vote on fast-track negotiating authority.
With the House set to vote in just a few hours, some Democrats are threatening to oppose providing aid to displaced workers -- a program they typically support -- as a means to block a vote on the expedited trade negotiating authority sought by Obama.
“We have the votes” to pass fast-track negotiating authority, House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, a Wisconsin Republican, said in an interview on CNBC. “The question today is whether or not the Democrats are going to deliver their votes for something called trade adjustment assistance, which is a necessary component.”
Under an agreement between House Republican and Democratic leaders, the fast-track bill won’t come to a vote unless the displaced-workers aid is passed.
Democratic Representative Gerry Connolly of Virginia, a fast-track supporter, said he felt “cautious” on the way in to the closed-door meeting with the president.
Asked whether trade-bill supporters will win, he said, “That’s the big question.”
The fast-track measure would strengthen Obama’s authority in negotiating trade agreements with foreign governments, including a pending partnership with 11 other Pacific nations. The Republican majority in the House appears poised to vote for the legislation, even as most of the president’s fellow Democrats oppose it.
It’s an unusual alliance for Republicans and Obama, who have found common ground in the belief that trade promotion authority, or TPA, would help U.S. workers and set rules for the global economy. Republican fans even chanted “TPA” when Obama made a surprise visit to the annual congressional baseball game Thursday night at Nationals Park in Washington.
Many Democrats though remain stung by the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement, which labor unions blame for a decline in U.S. manufacturing jobs.
“We’ve been working our way through this process and I feel good about it,” House Speaker John Boehner, an Ohio Republican, told reporters Thursday as lawmakers prepared to consider measures that will set trade policy into the next decade.
The White House spent much of Thursday wrangling support for a separate measure aiding workers displaced as a result of past trade agreements after Democrats staged a revolt. Obama himself worked the phones.
Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of California negotiated a procedural compromise with Boehner that linked the two bills. Opponents responded by trying to kill the worker aid bill to head off a vote on fast-track authority.
House Republicans who control the chamber, with help from Democratic backers, adopted a rule, 217-212, that will govern Friday’s debates and votes. The support for Pelosi’s procedural compromise suggests there is now enough backing to pass both bills.
Pelosi, who has ensured that Obama has had room to make his case on trade and stayed officially neutral on the bills, took that role a step further on Thursday. She mounted a defense of the procedural process she agreed on with Boehner, said an aide in the room during negotiations who sought anonymity to describe the meeting.
“She negotiated this,” Connolly told reporters Thursday. “She has ownership of this.”
Connolly, vice chair of the pro-trade New Democrat Coalition, said Pelosi didn’t disclose if she’d vote for the bills herself even as she invited Obama’s lieutenants to make their case at the closed-door meeting.
At the same time, Republican leaders accommodated their own members with a series of favors wired into bills that didn’t touch on worker assistance or negotiating authority. That lets them consider the same legislation, H.R. 1314, that the Senate passed, thus avoiding a conference committee and sending the bill directly to Obama for his signature.
Ryan included strengthened enforcement of existing trade rules to accommodate members of his party concerned about the effect on the steel industry. Republican hardliners on immigration got a provision ruling out changes to U.S. immigration laws through the fast-track procedure.
And Representative James Sensenbrenner, a Wisconsin Republican, successfully pressed for language aimed at preventing trade deals from becoming vehicles for rules aimed at stalling climate change.
Treasury Secretary Jacob J. Lew, who met privately Thursday with House Democrats alongside other senior administration officials, called the scheduled votes on trade a life-or-death moment for the displaced workers’ program, and urged fast-track opponents to support it, said the aide who was in the room.
“If we lose it, it may never come back,” said Representative Gregory Meeks, a New York Democrat who supports both trade measures.
Fast track would let Obama submit trade pacts to Congress for an expedited, up-or-down vote without amendments. The president has said he wants to complete the 12-nation Trans- Pacific Partnership trade agreement and send it for approval under that procedure.
In an indication of the administration’s confidence that trade promotion authority will pass, U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman told a group of chief executive officers on Wednesday that they should prepare for a similar lobbying campaign to pass the Pacific trade agreement.
“It may not be at the same intensity for six months, but that will be a big debate,” Froman said.
The first part of the multi-bill trade package, which would promote trade with poorer countries, passed 397-32 Thursday.On Friday, the House will vote on a customs and enforcement bill.
The House plans to vote on the fast-track bill only if members first pass the displaced-workers program, which had been sought by Democrats. A majority for the worker program is less certain than one for fast track.
Coming out of the meeting with administration officials, Representative G.K. Butterfield, a North Carolina Democrat and leader of the Congressional Black Caucus, promised his support for the bills.
Other Democrats who oppose fast-track said they hope to persuade enough Democrats to vote against aid for displaced workers, even though they support it, to prevent fast track from even coming to a vote. Representative Jan Schakowsky, an Illinois Democrat, said killing the workers’ aid was worth the price.
“There are plenty of those who feel that’s not such a bad price to pay for saving American jobs,” she said.