In a stunning display of rebellion in the House of Representatives, Democrats strongly rejected President Obama’s last minute blitz to convince them to support giving him Fast Track Authority (FTA) in order to negotiate the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP). As a concession to avoid a Senate filibuster last month, approval of the FTA was contingent upon another part of the bill that reauthorizes retraining and other job assistance for people displaced by trade deals like the TPP. The Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA) was soundly rejected by a 302-126 vote on Friday, with most House Republicans already against TAA, many calling it wasteful. If the TAA isn’t reauthorized, it will expire by the end of the year. Democrats have generally supported job displacement measures like the TAA, which is why the fact that only 40 Democrats voted for TAA is considered to be such a rebellion. Obama’s sought-after FTA for the TPP agreement actually passed by a narrow 219-211 vote, a largely symbolic gesture as the TAA failure stalls both provisions in the House. Representatives can take another vote as early as Tuesday, although it seems unlikely at the moment that anything will change over the weekend. The president will have to find a way, somehow, to regain support from his own party.
LA Times columnist Jon Healy probably summarizes the dilemma the best, “In other words, the House GOP leadership couldn’t persuade Republicans to back a program they dislike in order to pass a bill that they strongly support, while Democrats happily voted against a program they cherish in order to block TPA.” Some believe that the way Obama goaded, and at times, chastised Democrats for opposing the bill caused hurt feelings throughout the party. According to Representative Peter Defazio (D-OR), “The President tried to both guilt people and impugn their integrity. I was insulted.” Other lawmakers called Obama’s 11th hour outreach in which he sent Treasury Secretary Jack Lew, and Labor Secretary Thomas Perez to help build support a matter of too-little, too-late. House Minority Leader, Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), has largely kept quiet on the bill while members of her caucus railed against it. At the pre-vote Democratic caucus meeting, however, Pelosi urged fellow lawmakers to vote against TAA, in order to send a message to the president, “Our people would rather have a job than trade assistance. Its defeat, sad to say, is the only way that we will be able to slow down the fast track.” Pelosi did hint, however, at a potential compromise combined with other legislation.
Of course, judging by the number of times the fast track debate appeared to spell TPP’s demise only to survive, and the zeal in which the Obama administration has lobbied for the measure, it would be hard to imagine a final death-blow to the legislation. Pelosi said that a possible solution may be to tie the TAA and FTA measures to a long-term highway bill, legislation that Democrats have long-prioritized ahead of the TPP issue. That would likely drag the debate out longer, as garnering Republican support may be extremely difficult. Also, it could be possible that the legislation hits the drawing board again, separating the TAA from the FTA measures, however, keeping them together may entice some Democrats to reluctantly pass both if combined upon a revote. Representative Steve Israel (D-NY), noted “If members of my caucus come to the belief that … you could end up getting fast track without Trade Adjustment Assistance, I think many of my colleagues would reconsider Trade Adjustment Assistance.” Democrats have championed TAA for years, and the program’s demise could certainly be a blow to legislators in districts that have lost a multitude of manufacturing and other jobs to foreign competitors. In a debate that has already obliterated the usual party-lines; some believe that trend will have to continue in order to get the deal done. It is possible that mainstream Republicans may need to change their stance on the TAA provisions, or work with Pelosi on allowing the highway bill to pass, whether connected to TPA or not. Or maybe, just maybe, TPP will ultimately be defeated by popular will on principle alone, which would be perhaps the most stunning rebellion of all.
CNN – Eric Bradner and Deirdre Walsh
Los Angeles Times – Jon Healey
New York Times – Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post – Paul Kane, Mike DeBonis, and David Nakamura