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House Rejects TPP Fast-Track for Obama

Lisa Mascaro and Don Lee, Los Angeles Times

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June 12, 2015

resident Obama’s trade agenda unraveled Friday in a stunning setback delivered by his own party as the House rejected an important part of a package aimed at fast-tracking a controversial trade pact he is pursing with 11 other Pacific Rim nations.

Hoping to salvage a key piece of his legacy, Obama dashed to Capitol Hill for a rare early-morning meeting with Democrats. But even his high-profile personal intervention failed to generate the Democratic votes he needed to supplement support he received in an unusual alliance with pro-trade Republicans.

The House voted Friday on two measures, both of which had to pass in order to send the legislation -- which was already approved by the Senate -- to the president.

A bill to give the president fast-track authority to negotiate future trade deals was approved by a 219-211 vote.

But another measure regarding funds to retrain workers failed, 126 to 302.

Because the Senate had approved both measures, the failure of the retraining program prevented the package from advancing.

Obama personally pressed Democrats to support the measure in a meeting Friday morning on Capitol Hill and an unscheduled appearance Thursday night at the annual congressional ballgame at the Nationals ballpark.

“Play it straight,” Obama told the House Democrats on Friday, urging them in a 20-minute private talk not to employ a tactical move to defeat the package.

But his message may have only further divided the party and pushed liberal Democrats to dig in to stop the entire trade deal.

“Basically, the president tried to both guilt people and impugn their integrity,” said Rep. Pete DeFazio (D-Ore.). “There were a number of us who were insulted by the approach.”

“The shift from the White House and the president was not fast enough,” said Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas), who supports the bills. “I wish there would have been much better outreach.”

The measure would give the Obama administration the ability to wrap up negotiations on the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a free-trade deal years in the making, and present a final agreement to Congress for expedited consideration and an up-or-down vote with no amendments.

The Trans-Pacific Partnership would be one of the world's largest and most ambitious trade efforts ever, aimed at removing barriers and establishing rules on investment and commerce affecting 40% of the global economy. The proposed pact contains multiple sections that include provisions on labor, intellectual property, cross-border data flows and state-owned enterprises.

Obama’s trade agenda places him in an unusual alliance with congressional Republicans, who are traditionally pro-free trade. But some GOP conservatives also opposed the fast-track measure because they were loathe to boost the president’s authority or help him win a legislative trophy.

“I understand a lot of our members don’t trust the president. Neither do I. That’s precisely why I support this bill,” said Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), a chief negotiator, said Friday in the House. “TPA puts Congress in the driver’s seat.”

Democratic lawmakers, meanwhile, faced the uncomfortable choice of voting against their president or for a bill that at most has tepid support from ordinary constituents and is fiercely opposed by various consumer groups and organized labor. Union leaders, fearing a trade deal will send more American jobs overseas, have threatened to cut off election campaign help for lawmakers who support the measure.

In the end, congressional Republicans and the White House failed to overcome an unexpected, last-minute obstacle involving worker retraining funds.

Fast-track authority passed 62-37 in the Senate last month after GOP leaders won over some Democrats by coupling it with a measure to extend funding for retraining American workers hurt by foreign competition, a program known as Trade Adjustment Assistance.

But in the House, Democrats balked at a plan to pay for worker training with what they viewed as cuts from Medicare.

After negotiations this week between Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) and Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), House GOP leaders responded by splitting the measure into two bills, one for fast-track and another for the retraining funds. They also agreed to find an alternative funding source for the retraining program.

Republicans largely oppose spending money on the worker retraining program, viewing it as wasteful, putting pressure on Democrats to pass that portion of the package.

White House officials told Democrats privately that the Trade Adjustment Assistance package was the best offer they would get.

“The Republican Congress will not give us another chance to reauthorize TAA if we don’t do it,” White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough told them earlier this week, according to a Democratic source in a private caucus meeting.

House Democrats, unconvinced the new retraining funds would be agreed to by the Senate, seized on the tactical opening to defeat the entire package by rallying votes against the training program.