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Democrats Frustrated by Unions' Cash Freeze Over 'Fast Track'

Richard Trumka is president of the AFL-CIO, which has frozen campaign contributions to Democrats over a trade bill being debated in Congress. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

One of Democrats' best team players on the campaign finance front is playing hardball this cycle, withholding campaign cash over a package of trade bills being debated in Congress.  

The AFL-CIO, along with some public sector unions, announced a campaign finance freeze in March. Unions hoped the threat of withholding contributions would scare Democratic lawmakers out of supporting President Barack Obama's Trade Promotion Authority, or "fast track," to negotiate the Trans-Pacific Partnership — a trade agreement labor groups say would hurt manufacturing jobs in the U.S.  

But instead, the freeze is frustrating and alienating plenty of House Democrats, many of whom say they are being punished even though they have been critical of the issue.  

"I could understand withholding money from people who are on the fence — sure, great," said one House Democratic chief of staff who asked not to be identified. "But for the people who are with them who also really need the help, I just don’t know that’s a smart strategy. I think that there’s plenty of people who they trust to be with them who could really use their help in deterring an opponent by showing some strength at this point in the cycle, and they're not helping with that."  

Other Democrats are beginning to lose trust in unions coming through with campaign contributions at all, as House Democrats look to make inroads into a historic House majority.  

"We’re getting close to the end of the second quarter now ...  and now the answer they give us is, 'Even if you vote no on TPA and no on TPP, you still may not get checks because we may be trying to take out people who did vote for it,' " said one House Democratic aide. "It's not like they are going to reward good behavior. Now they're saying, 'We may have to take our money elsewhere.' "  

Democrats were reluctant to speak on the record about their frustration with the finance freeze. But others said publicly that fundraising over the past few months could have been better without unions' embargo on campaign contributions.  

Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Ben Ray Lujan said members of the caucus have picked up the slack to keep the DCCC apace — or even ahead — of its Republican counterpart in the fundraising race.  

"Our members have really stepped up and have been supporting the DCCC in stronger ways. It’s been great and helped fill that void," Lujan told CQ Roll Call Tuesday. "So could everyone be doing a little bit better if there were more supporters around the country? I think that the answer to that question is yes. But right now we’re making sure we’re reaching out to people across the country to do as best as we can and we’re in a strong place."  

There's also concern among Democratic political operatives that unions won't deliver in contributing to Democratic-aligned super PACs that will work to help Democrats make inroads in Republicans' House and Senate majorities in 2016.  

In 2014, unions funneled more than $15 million to Senate Majority PAC, and sent nearly $11 million to House Majority PAC, according to Open Secrets data . Those groups spend money to boost Democratic incumbents and candidates in competitive House and Senate races across the country, plugging gaps in spending that candidates and party committees could not. There are also Democrats who say they're being treated unfairly for taking an unpopular stance on one bill when they've been loyal to labor on nearly every other important issue.  

On Wednesday, a group of nearly 20 House Democrats, most of whom are learning toward voting "yes" on TPA, met with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi for nearly an hour to discuss the matter.  

During the closed-door meeting, Pelosi made it clear she has already expressed her concern about the AFL-CIO tactics directly to the people who need to hear it. But Rep. Kurt Schrader, D-Ore., chairman of the fiscally conservative Blue Dog Coalition, said later Wednesday he was still worried leadership wasn't prepared to go far enough to shield members from AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, who he referred to as "the bully."  

"We certainly overall represent labor's interests," Schrader told CQ Roll Call. "We're solid on labor issues and to have this become a litmus test for one individual issue, I think that's demeaning."  

"To actively campaign against you when you're with them 80 percent of the time — I don't take kindly to bullying. That gets my dander up. And I hope it gets the dander up of most every single member of my party," he said.  

White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Obama will come to the aid of any Democrat who finds themselves in primary peril because of backlash for supporting the "fast-track" bill.  

“Those who are concerned about it I think do take a lot of solace in knowing that they can count on the support of President Barack Obama in a Democratic primary if they need it," Earnest said.  

The AFL-CIO declined to comment on the suspension of federal contributions, and whether it will be lifted even if Congress gives Obama fast-track authority to negotiate the Trans-Pacific Partnership.  

Meanwhile, Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva, D-Ariz., the co-chairman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, suggested Democrats ought not to complain about the funding freeze — or be surprised, at that.  

"Here's the deal," Grijalva said on Wednesday. "Everybody goes to the well of labor when they're running for office in terms of contributions. ... Early on in this process, anybody around in the last session knew that with [trade] coming up, that was going to be a litmus test, and so to say now that labor is being mean or over the top in terms of their criticisms of Democrats who are going to vote for [TPA] is kind of like a late realization when you've already taken the money and the support."  

As for the decision to withhold money from all House Democrats without discrimination, Grijalva also didn't fault the AFL-CIO.  

"There are some great pro-labor people with great records that feel [the AFL-CIO] should have been more selective," he said. "But I understand that this upcoming vote is very important, and so holding their money until that vote is done, strategically, I understand. ... They see this as a critical fight for their legitimacy and their survival and the fact that they reacted the way they have, I don't find it unusual at all."  

Related: 'Fast-Track' Trade Vote in Flux, but Backers are Confident Obama Ready to Fight Unions on 'Fast-Track' Hoyer Urges Civility Among Democrats in Trade Debate Roll Call Race Ratings Map: Ratings for Every House and Senate Race in 2016 Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call in your inbox or on your iPhone.