Democrats are “overwhelmingly” opposed to both fast-track trade authority and to the Asian trade deal the administration is negotiating, exposing doubts about President Obama from within his own ranks — and an ever-shrinking number of lawmakers even willing to be persuaded by him.
Rep. Sander M. Levin, the ranking Democrat on the House Committee on Ways and Means, said Mr. Obama’s negotiators botched the chance at a more bipartisan deal, risking the fate of both the fast-track negotiating authority and the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal that the president is rushing to finalize.
Mr. Levin, Michigan Democrat, said he’s now firmly in the “no” camp and will lead the opposition.
“I’m out to defeat the Hatch-Wyden bill,” Mr. Levin told reporters, saying that even the number of potential votes on the table for Mr. Obama still to sway through his powers of persuasion is tiny.
“I think the recruiting number is small,” he said.
Sens. Orrin G. Hatch of Utah and Ron Wyden of Oregon, the top Republican and Democrat, respectively, on the Senate Committee on Finance, announced a deal last week on Trade Promotion Authority (TPA), so-called “fast-track” powers that let a president negotiate a deal and then submit it for an up-or-down vote in Congress. TPA is considered essential for Mr. Obama to conclude negotiations on the Asian trade deal, the TPP.
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The bill to grant fast-track powers must clear Congress, and even though the GOP, which is generally trade-friendly, controls both chambers, Democratic votes will still likely be needed in both the House and Senate.
Bringing those Democrats on board will fall chiefly to Mr. Obama, for whom a major trade deal could be a capstone legacy for his second term in office — if he can deliver the votes.
At a press conference last week, Mr. Obama made his plea, urging fellow Democrats to trust him, saying he is still on the same wavelength they are when it comes to jobs and worker protections.
“For those who argue that somehow this is contrary to the interests of working families, what I tell them is my whole presidency has been about helping working families and lifting up wages and giving workers more opportunity,” he said.
He insisted that he’s learned the lessons of past trade deals that he said ended up shorting American workers, and said the new fast-track authority fixes those problems.
Mr. Levin said that’s not true, and said the administration had a chance to work with Democrats to fix problems in the Pacific trade deal but failed to follow through. He said moving forward with fast-track authority now short-circuits the chance for redemption.
“I think the overwhelming feeling among Democrats is opposed to fast-tracking [a] TPP” trade deal, he said.
Complicating Mr. Obama’s path to success are the liberal pressure groups, who are vowing vehement opposition to both TPA and the TPP.
Democracy for America, one of the groups, compared voting for either to voting for the Iraq War, calling it a politically momentous stance that voters will remember — and possibly reward or punish lawmakers for — years into the future.
The Congressional Progressive Caucus, the group of liberals in the House, declared the Pacific trade deal “a threat to our constituents, our economy and the checks and balances that make our democracy work.”
And the issue is already getting snared in 2016 Democratic presidential politics with Hillary Rodham Clinton, Mr. Obama’s own former secretary of state, saying she’ll take a wait-and-see approach toward the deals, and other potential White House candidates saying they’ve already concluded the agreements are losers for American voters.
“These trade agreements have forced wages down in America,” Sen. Bernard Sanders, a Vermont independent pondering a presidential run as a Democrat, told “Fox News Sunday” this weekend.
Fast-track powers are considered the key to Mr. Obama being able to sign any future trade deals. Under fast-track procedures, Congress lays out goals for any trade deal, and the president is required to keep Congress informed of his negotiations. Once he signs a deal and submits it, Congress must accept or reject it as is, without the chance to amend it.
Absent fast-track, Congress could insist on amendments, which would undercut Mr. Obama’s negotiating powers on the front end.
Anticipating potential problems, Mr. Wyden demanded the fast-track bill list human rights considerations as a goal any trade deal must reach. But Mr. Levin waved those off, saying they were too vague to have teeth, and saying the rest of the TPA bill was a rehash of a previous proposal that more than 150 Democrats rejected last year.
Republican leaders, who are generally more in favor of free trade, face their own potential political rebellion from conservatives who oppose TPA because they believe it gives more power to a president who has, in their view, already abused his executive powers on immigration and the environment.
It’s unclear how much traction that argument will have, but it means that even in the House, where the GOP has a majority and doesn’t have to worry about a filibuster, Republicans will likely need Democratic support to pass the bill.
Much will depend on whether House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and her lieutenants decide to actively work against the trade legislation, which could seal its doom.
Mrs. Pelosi earlier this year told a labor union audience she was opposed to fast-track authority, but has not commented since the new deal was announced Thursday.
On Friday Mr. Wyden, the Democrat who’ll be charged with selling the deal in the Senate, said he was optimistic — but said the president has hurt his own case by being too secretive with the details of the TPP deal.
Mr. Wyden told a breakfast hosted by the Christian Science Monitor that the secrecy has made it tougher to sway votes, and has allowed opponents to fill the information gap.