The House dramatically rescued President Barack Obama‘s trade agenda from near oblivion Thursday, and supporters urged the Senate to finish the job and give him a signature achievement in his final years in office.
The turnabout gave a much-needed lift to a president recently rebuffed by his own party after years of fighting Republicans.
In one of the strangest twists of his presidency, most fellow Democrats oppose Obama on trade, forcing him to rely heavily on Republicans to ease the path for possibly far-reaching trade accords in Asia and elsewhere.
The president needs comparatively small numbers of Democrats in both chambers. His supporters were encouraged by Thursday’s events.
Setting up votes early next week, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., alluded to the bill’s near death last week, but he maintained that the measure could be sent to Obama before July 4.
McConnell said it would require “working together toward the shared goal of a win for the American people. … Trusting each other to get there. I think we can.”
The same 28 House Democrats who previously backed Obama’s bid for “fast track” negotiating authority held firm, despite withering criticism from unions and liberal groups. Under that authority, a president can negotiate liberalized trade deals that Congress can only approve or reject, not change.
Opponents of Obama’s path on trade now are focusing on 14 Democratic senators who backed fast track earlier. There were no open signs of erosion Thursday, although Democrats are demanding inclusion of a job retraining program, with details of it still incomplete.
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said Republicans are committed to ensuring that the negotiating authority and retraining program pass for Obama’s signature into law.
Corporate groups and other free-trade supporters hailed the House vote Thursday approving the negotiating authority. It passed 218-208, proving the importance of the 28 Democratic supporters.
“This vote is a huge step with the administration and for a nation which rejects isolationism and protectionism,” said Gary Shapiro, president of the Consumer Electronics Association.
Liberal groups fumed.
“A handful of turncoat Democrats” who backed the legislation “should know that we will not lift a finger or raise a penny to protect you when you’re attacked in 2016,” said Jim Dean of Democracy for America. He said the group will try to oust those lawmakers in future Democratic primaries.
Lawmakers agree that major trade deals, including the long-negotiated Trans-Pacific Partnership, cannot be completed unless negotiating partners know that Congress won’t tinker with the final agreement. Previous presidents have negotiated such deals with fast-track authority.
Democratic opposition to free trade has grown since the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA, lowered barriers with Canada and Mexico.
Republicans, and pro-trade Democratic presidents such as Obama and Bill Clinton, have tried to ease concerns by offering a union-backed program, Trade Adjustment Assistance, that provides help to workers displaced by trade.
Many Republicans consider it wasteful but a reasonable price for Democrats’ help on liberalized trade.
That strategy seemed sound last month, when the Senate passed a bill that linked the assistance with the negotiating authority.
House Democrats sabotaged that last week, however. They voted to kill the worker assistance program in order to derail the fast track. The stinging rebuke of Obama forced Republican leaders to repackage the trade legislation and try again.
That worked as the House passed the new bill, which dealt solely with the negotiating authority.
Pro-trade forces hope for similar results in the Republican-dominated Senate, perhaps as early as next week.
Last month, the Senate passed legislation that combined fast track with worker assistance, getting two more votes than needed to stop fatal delaying tactics by opponents. Support from the 14 Democratic senators who backed the bill was vital to that victory and Obama’s backers are keen to hold them.
Most if not all of the 14 say it’s crucial that Congress approve, and Obama sign, a renewal of the trade adjustment assistance in conjunction with the negotiating authority.
Some of fast track’s staunchest opponents say it’s inconceivable to negotiate a lowering of trade barriers without looking after those who lose their jobs.
“I can’t believe Congress would vote for a trade agreement and not help these workers,” said Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio. “It’s morally shameful not to take care of these workers.”
Brown said the Senate shouldn’t vote on fast track until that assistance “is locked down.”
Other opponents of fast track were ready to move to other issues. “I think most Democrats, at the end of the day, realize that we now have an even more important obligation” to pass the assistance bill along with fast track, said Rep. Steve Israel, D-N.Y. Dwelling on a procedural process that divides Obama and House Democrats, he said, is “not a good message. So we need to put the period at the end of the sentence and move on to another topic.”
And White House spokesman Eric Schultz said: “The only strategy that we support moving through Congress is one that includes both of those pieces getting to his desk for his signature.”
Republished with permission of The Associated Press.