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12 Jun

Democrats Rebel To Block Obama’s Trade Deals

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Democrats Rebel To Block Obama’s Trade Deals

WASHINGTON — Democrats rebelled against President Barack Obama’s ambitious trade agenda Friday, spurning his last-second personal appeal and blocking a measure in the House that would have granted him the power to fast-track sweeping, secretive international agreements through Congress.

The Democrats’ revolt focused on a provision that they would normally back — something called Trade Adjustment Assistance, or TAA, which would pay to help retrain workers whose jobs get shipped overseas by trade deals — knowing that killing it would bring fast-track down with it.

But weeks of telephone calls from the White House, countless meetings, negotiations, public feuds and a last-minute trip to Capitol Hill from the president himself did nothing to sway Democrats and the GOP’s conservative wing against Obama’s trade agenda. In an especially stinging rebuke, Obama lost the key vote, 302 to 126, despite his personal lobbying just hours before. Fast-track passed, 219 to 211.

“If TAA slows down the fast-track, I am prepared to vote against TAA,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said on the House floor. “Because I’m sad to say it’s the only way that we will be able to slow down the fast-track. If TAA fails, the fast-track bill is stopped.”

“I believe that when leader Pelosi announced that she was voting against trade adjustment assistance, that did sway votes,” Rep. Steve Israel (D-N.Y.) said. “When the president came in to talk to caucus this morning for undecided members, I think he made a persuasive case. When leader Pelosi announced that she was voting against TAA for undecided members, it sealed the deal.”

The TAA measure was included in the fast-track bill in a bid to win Democratic support. But it attracted opposition because funding for the program was seen as too low, and because the Senate decided to pay for it in part by cutting $700 million from Medicare.

House Republicans tried to smooth over that problem with a proposal to vote on TAA separately from the main fast-track bill — known as Trade Promotion Authority, or TPA — and an alternative funding structure that they said would not harm Medicare. But Democrats still felt the assistance was inadequate, and argued that the new funding structure still amounted to voting to take dollars away from Medicare.

“Unfortunately, the TAA proposal is really short for ‘taking away assistance,'” said Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D-Texas) on Friday. “It includes substantially less funding than the administration has said was essential to protect those who lose their jobs through expanded trade.”

“TAA should not be a bargaining chip to get a deeply flawed TPA across the finish line,” said Rep. Sander Levin (D-Mich.), the top Democrat on the House Ways and Means Committee, who took to the House floor Friday even as Obama made a personal visit to Capitol Hill in an effort to sway his own party members.

GOP leadership plans to bring TAA back up by Tuesday, said Brendan Buck, a spokesman for Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), adding that there will not be another vote on TPA. Passing fast-track gives hope to Obama but if Democrats block TAA again on Tuesday, it will further delay his agenda from moving forward. And if Democrats do that, they run the risk of Republicans pushing through a fast-track bill without it, essentially killing the job assistance program.

Some Republicans view TAA as essentially a wasteful welfare program, and with Democrats voting no, there were not enough members of the majority party to pass the measure.

Doggett said Obama and the administration had only themselves to blame, claiming they’d ignored the long-running complaints from Democrats that the fast-track measure fails to protect workers, environmental standards and financial regulations, and does nothing to stop unfair currency manipulation.

“What really needs adjusting here today is the no-compromise, no-amendment attitude on trade,” said Doggett. “This vote wouldn’t be so close if this process hadn’t been so closed.”

Tensions ran high leading into the vote, and Obama’s visit followed a full-court press by administration officials in a Capitol Hill meeting Thursday. White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough, Labor Secretary Tom Perez and Treasury Secretary Jack Lew failed to win over more Democrats, despite pleas that all but asked Democrats to vote for the agenda because the president needed them. Obama also pushed his cause at the annual congressional baseball game Thursday night, apparently to no avail.

Democrats had repeatedly asked for the administration to make the looming trade deals public before seeking the fast-track power, which lets presidents shove trade pacts quickly through Congress on simple majority votes with no amendments allowed.

The TPA bill only calls for making the deals public after the international negotiators finalize them. There would then be a two-month period to scrutinize the agreements before the president signed them. Congress would still vote, but the pacts would be all but certain to pass in a GOP-controlled House and Senate.

“We in Congress will be in the back seat, not in the falsely claimed driver’s seat,” said Levin on Friday.

The failure does not necessarily mean an end to the battle. House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) can bring the measures back if he can find a way to coax more conservative opponents on board.

Ryan, the chairman of the Ways and Means Committee who is spearheading the trade push, argued passionately in favor of the deals, saying they were the only way for America to compete in an increasingly globalized economy where many other countries are cutting their own trade agreements that leave out the United States.

“Ninety-five percent of the world’s consumers, they don’t live in this country,” Ryan said Friday. “So if we want to create more jobs in America, we’ve got to make more things here in America, and send them over there.”

“While the world has been moving full speed ahead,” he went on, “we have been standing still.”

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