The House did Thursday what two weeks ago might have seemed impossible: Cleared for President Barack Obama the second and third of four necessary components to his ambitious and contentious trade agenda.
Lawmakers voted 286-138 on a bill to establish broad trade preferences and extend the African Growth and Opportunity Act, which facilitates trade between the U.S. and sub-Saharan Africa. The bill became a vehicle to also pass Trade Adjustment Assistance, which aids U.S. workers displaced by global trade agreements, and language to change TAA's original offset, which would have used sequester cuts to Medicare.
All that's left now is a bill to strengthen the customs process, which both chambers will go to conference on in the coming weeks.
TAA was a heavier lift two weeks ago, when as a standalone bill it fell victim to Republican opposition and Democrats who wanted to sink it as a tactic to kill Trade Promotion Authority.
The strategy of making TAA part of a less controversial package was what it took to get the votes to pass, but that's only part of the explanation for how Congress was able to deliver the package before leaving town for a week-long recess.
Democrats were under tremendous pressure from fellow progressives and outside labor groups, particularly the AFL-CIO, to do whatever it took to stymie Obama's ability to negotiate a 12-nation Pacific trade pact. First, voting down TAA was the mechanism, but opponents were also fixated on provisions in the bill they didn't like — they were worried the Medicare offset would not be changed, as promised, and they didn't think generally it did enough to help U.S. workers, particularly those in the public sector.
The Senate passed TPA Wednesday, the bill's last hurdle before landing on Obama's desk. Though Obama had previously said he didn't want to sign TPA without TAA, if TAA failed there was still no guarantee Obama would reject the chance to be able to negotiate the Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP.
So House Democrats saw the writing on the wall: TPA would become a reality, and did the want to risk losing TAA, a longtime priority for the party, for nothing?
Democrats who have been among the most vocal opponents of Obama's trade agenda conceded defeat on Wednesday, among them Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., and Ways and Means Chairman Sander M. Levin, D-Mich. House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer, D-Md., and Democratic Caucus Vice Chairman Joseph Crowley, D-N.Y., also said they would vote "yes" on TAA when it came to the House floor on Thursday.
Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi's announcement that she, too, would support TAA after previously empowering members to reject it was a defining moment in the lead-up to the final vote Thursday.
"This ends one phase, but it's not final," the California Democrat said at her weekly news conference. "This fight will continue. ... We will continue for America's families, we will be shining a bright light, a clear focus on what is going on in the TPP. We hope it will end up with a legislation that many members can support, but to be sure that that happens we need transparency. We need congressional consultation. That was rejected in TPA, that's why we opposed it."
Even the AFL-CIO, which has been withholding donations from congressional Democrats and campaigning against pro-trade lawmakers, stood down this week.
"We do not have confidence that the White House would hold out for a stronger TAA bill if this one were to fail," AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka wrote to members Wednesday. "Therefore we urge you to vote your conscience, and we will respect your decision, whatever it may be."