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Trade Fight Galvanizing the Left

Ellison, shown here at a February labor rally on the Hill, said there will be blood in the fight over the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

With the first round of appropriations bills and a possible budget conference report on the House floor this week, the chamber's progressive contingent is looking farther down the road at the storm brewing over so-called Trade Promotion Authority, or "fast track."  

Legislation allowing President Barack Obama to negotiate the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement would ordinarily be divisive within the House Democratic Caucus, but progressives say there's even more at stake in this most recent fight: 2016. If they can't stop the TPA bill, the nearly 70 voting House members in the Congressional Progressive Caucus are determined to make such a ruckus that the party's 2016 candidates — presidential front-runner Hillary Rodham Clinton in particular — realize Obama's middle-of-the-road approach to trade, or any major policy area, is not acceptable.  

"I think if we were to keep fast track from happening here, then the message is pretty clear to the national campaigns, Hillary's in particular, that this is an issue that's going to energize the base," said CPC Co-Chairman Raúl M. Grijalva, D-Ariz.  

"I think it kind of sets a tone nationally," Grijalva said, "My point being, if the vast majority of the Democrats in the House are willing to confront their president, it only makes sense that any candidate for that position is on the line."  

"The Progressive Caucus, and the progressive movement in general, needs to be loyal to the principles and ideas, not personalities," said Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., Grijalva's co-chairman.  

Ideally, Clinton would have come out already against TPA, Grijalva, Ellison and others say. But if she won't — and not many expect her to — then the mission is to make it politically untenable for Clinton, assuming she is the nominee, to tack to the right on other issues important to populists and labor, a core Democratic constituency.  

A senior House Democratic aide who works for a member of the CPC added that even if Democrats aren't able to derail TPA, the opposition has reached a crescendo that will make future trade negotiations non-starters.  

"I don't think we actually have to defeat TPA," the aide said. "I think it's having an impact; I think you're seeing it already."  

He mentioned the recent episode where Obama called Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., "wrong" in her opposition to TPA. The presidential brushback of the progressive lawmaker, who has become a hero to the left, comes as Obama is increasingly vilified for supporting the fast-track framework negotiated by two Republicans and one Democrat : House Ways and Means Chairman Paul D. Ryan, R-Wis., and the Senate Finance Committee's chairman and ranking member, Orrin G. Hatch, R-Utah, and Ron Wyden of Oregon.  

"Seeing Obama directly attack Elizabeth Warren and other unnamed liberals really shows the stakes are really high in this fight," the aide said.  

Both committees acted on the legislation last week, meaning that floor consideration could come sooner than later. House GOP leadership is going to have to start making the rounds soon to determine whether it has 218 Republican votes to make it across the finish line.  

Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, at his weekly news conference Thursday, said bipartisanship would be necessary for the TPA and the onus was on Obama to get his members in line .  

Much of the larger House Democratic Caucus strategy on TPA hinges on whether Republicans need Democratic votes. Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, traditionally an ally of progressives and a point person when it comes to delivering results for the Obama administration, hasn't signaled how she'll ultimately vote. But she said at her own news conference on April 23 it would behoove Republicans with work with Democrats if they do in fact need votes, and she would be fighting to make the bill more palatable for her members.  

Pelosi would be giving House progressives a huge win in the event she came over to their side on trade, a sign ideology won out over her loyalty to the president, and also that, politically, liberals had won the messaging wars over even the center-left.  

For the time being, CPC members said it was important to just keep the pressure turned to "high," for Clinton or anyone else.  

"I believe we will derail this," Ellison said, "but no matter what happens, it's kind of like this: Will the little guy beat up the big bully? Who knows? But if the little guy's willing to fight, the big guy's able to win in a bloody battle or lose in a bloody battle. But the battle will be bloody."  

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