Despite an eleventh-hour plea from President Barack Obama, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and House Democrats turned their backs on the White House Friday and blocked the chamber from advancing — for now — the administration's trade agenda.
It's an outcome supporters of Trade Promotion Authority say could have irreversible repercussions for key training programs the party has traditionally supported, and it leaves Democrats as fractured as they've ever been during the Obama presidency. Lawmakers voted 126-302 on Trade Adjustment Assistance legislation, which supports U.S. workers who have lost their jobs as a result of trade deals. Only 40 Democrats voted "yes," along with 86 Republicans.
House Rejects TAA, Will Vote Again Next Week
The House plans to reconsider TAA next week, giving Obama the weekend to lobby Democrats in hopes of saving the package. Passage of TAA was necessary to advance TPA, which would fast-track a potential 12-nation trade deal with Pacific countries.
Members voted 219-211 on TPA after sinking TAA. They both must pass in order to be cleared for the president's signature.
If TAA doesn't pass the second time around, there are more questions than answers on what happens next.
The procedural hurdles to bring TPA back to the floor are significant and unwieldy, but because there are currently the votes to pass that component of the trade package — as members saw Friday — GOP leaders will likely work to find a way to move it along in the days ahead.
One thing is certain, Democrats and Republicans alike warned anti-TPA crusaders in advance of the showdown Friday: Let TAA sink at your own peril.
"For our caucus now to draw the line on something that to our core we've always believed in, and that's giving people a hand up when they are down, and that's what TAA has always been about, is making sure that when you are affected by globalization forces that are beyond your control, there will be programs there to help you up," said Rep. Ron Kind, the chairman of the moderate New Democrat Coalition who has been a liaison between the White House and pro-trade Democrats in the absence of Democratic leadership taking a proactive whip role in advance of the vote.
"Now, for us as a party to threaten to bring that down and face the risk that we will lose it in its entirety in the future, because the other side won't bring it up again — we would own that fact as a party," the Wisconsin Democrat said.
"I'll give you a scenario," Kind continued, growing more animated. "If this goes down, I think the administration continues to go forward to negotiate a [Trans-Pacific Partnership] agreement. It will be a much worse agreement than if he gets this authority, and chances of it passing are probably slimmer than they would if he had the authority. I'll also guarantee you this: TAA goes away. And there's no scenario on bringing that back again and I hope my colleagues are thinking through this a little bit because that's what's at stake right now."
Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi wasn't swayed by the argument.
The California Democrat, who has held off on articulating her position on TPA for months, chose the very last minutes before the clock started ticking down on the TAA vote to do so.
"If voting against TAA slows down [TPA], I’m prepared to vote against TAA," she said, hammering the final nail into the bill's coffin.
It was clear her position was a surprise to colleagues, with close ally Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., barely able to conceal her applause in approval. Pelosi always seemed to be leaning "no" on TPA, but her vote against TAA was particularly stunning because she was the one who helped broker a deal meant to allay concerns of enough Democrats to not put the entire package in peril.
Pelosi Announces Opposition to Trade Legislation
During the vote itself, members watched the board as the deficit for passage got bigger and bigger. Instead of a frantic whipping scenario, members almost seemed resigned to the failed fate of the TAA legislation. Republicans had little reason to vote for the TAA program, which they've traditionally opposed in large part. And Democrats had little reason to break from the majority of their party, after Pelosi weighed in.
Though the battle was originally centered on finding the votes for TPA, TAA ultimately became the site of contention. Progressives first said they didn't want to vote for the bill that contained language that stipulated sequester cuts to Medicare that would pay for worker retraining programs. Republicans agreed to change the offset at Pelosi's request, but put the language in another part of the four-pronged trade package. Progressive Democrats weren't satisfied, arguing that the sequence of votes and procedural maneuvers didn't actually address their concerns — and besides, there were other things in the TAA bill they didn't like.
Meanwhile, with the rule governing floor consideration putting passage of TPA contingent on passage of TAA, Democrats began earlier this week to coordinate a strategy of voting against TAA just to block passage of TPA.
From the very beginning, Democrats were expected to carry the votes on TAA, with Republicans by and large rejecting the programs contained in the legislation as tantamount to welfare.
Kind, who worked with Majority Whip Steve Scalise, R-La., on Thursday to pass the rule to bring the trade bills to the floor Friday, said leading up to the final passage votes that Republicans were working hard to get enough of their colleagues on board to pass TAA in the interest of passing TPA.
Ultimately, they weren't successful in making up for the Democratic shortfall.
Niels Lesniewski contributed to this report.
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