- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 13, 2015

The White House tried to salvage President Obama’s free-trade deal on Capitol Hill Wednesday, even as House Democrats intensified their opposition to the measure and blamed Mr. Obama for mishandling the politics of his top second-term priority.

A day after Senate Democrats dealt an embarrassing setback to Mr. Obama on the trade legislation, key Democratic lawmakers vowed that the task ahead for the president will only become more difficult if the measure eventually reaches the House.

“If the administration thought it was tough going in the Senate, in the House it will be even harder,” said Rep. Rosa DeLauro, Connecticut Democrat and a leading opponent of giving the president special authority to negotiate the trade pact. “I believe they underestimated the depth of feeling.”

White House aides were in discussions with lawmakers to find “a path forward” to rescue the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership, a sprawling agreement with 11 other Pacific-rim nations. The administration also was scrambling to reassure foreign governments from Japan to Canada that the failed test vote in the Senate Tuesday was not a fatal blow to the overall trade agreement.

But White House press secretary Josh Earnest acknowledged that the administration hasn’t yet found a solution to persuading U.S. lawmakers to grant trade-promotion authority to Mr. Obama.

“I don’t have one to announce now,” he said. “This is something that’s under a lot of discussion on Capitol Hill.”

Even as administration officials were trying to work through the policy differences with their own party, however, the White House also was grappling with renewed criticism about Mr. Obama bungling his personal outreach effort with an approach perceived by some as condescending and even sexist. Liberals from Sen. Sherrod Brown, Ohio Democrat, to NOW President Terry O’Neill said it was sexist for the president to refer to Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Massachusetts Democrat and a vocal opponent of the deal, as “Elizabeth.”

“I think it is sexist,” Ms. O’Neill told The Hill newspaper. “I think the president was trying to build up his own trustworthiness on this issue by convincing us that Senator Warren’s concerns are not to be taken seriously. But he did it in a sexist way.”

Mr. Brown later relented from his criticism, saying he would apologize to Mr. Obama.

Senate Democrats filibustered Tuesday to stop the first major free-trade deal vote in years, with the administration’s effort falling seven votes short of the 60 needed to proceed with debate. Only one Democrat, Sen. Thomas R. Carper of Delaware, voted with the president on legislation to give Mr. Obama trade-promotion authority.

House Democrats said the White House miscalculated badly by rejecting lawmakers’ calls to include a provision in the TPP to address currency manipulation by other countries. Rep. David Scott, Georgia Democrat, called it “the Achilles heel” of the proposed agreement and said the administration’s refusal to address it was “asinine.”

Rep. Joe Courtney, Connecticut Democrat, said the administration has been downplaying lawmakers’ concerns for years about including an enforceable provision against currency manipulation in the TPP.

“A huge bipartisan collection of members have been sending up smoke signals for years, going back to 2013,” Mr. Courtney said. “To not have an agreement that has enforceable provisions on that issue, it’s almost political malpractice for members of Congress to just sort of look the other way. All of us would have preferred that the administration heeded the early input that all of us were giving on this issue and brought this to the table.”

The president has said that addressing currency manipulation could have an adverse impact on U.S. monetary policy, an argument that Mr. Courtney called “misleading rebuttal.”

Mrs. DeLauro said the administration has “rebuffed” lawmakers’ concerns about currency manipulation, food safety and enforceable labor standards for more than two years, and the problem is now coming back to haunt the president.

“The White House and the administration have only begun to engage in the last few months, really,” she told reporters. “We’ve been rebuffed. Now there is this frenetic sense of ‘let’s try to address those people who are still undecided.’”

Speaker John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican who supports the deal, has said the White House needs to provide about 50 votes from the 188 Democratic House lawmakers to help pass the measure. More than 150 House Democrats last year came out in opposition to the deal, and Mrs. DeLauro recited the names of a handful of other Democratic lawmakers who have recently announced their opposition, including Reps. Adam Schiff of California and Tammy Duckworth of Illinois.

The so-called “fast-track” authority allows a president to negotiate trade deals with other countries, then submit them for up-or-down votes in Congress without amendments. Analysts say that if Congress were allowed to amend deals, it would make it impossible to negotiate with foreign governments.

But the Senate test vote brought to light the breathtaking spectacle of Democratic lawmakers complaining that the president of their own party was trying to grab too much power.

“We have seen too much power ceded from Congress to the executive branch at the expense of the United States, particularly in foreign matters,” said Rep. David Scott, Georgia Democrat. “You can look at the Iran [nuclear] deal, look at a lot of things. Congress has to retain our place. This should be a shared trade deal, not just by the president himself.”

The simmering feud between Mr. Obama and Mrs. Warren, an icon of the progressive wing, showed no signs of abating. The White House also faced more second-guessing about Mr. Obama’s decision to promote the trade deal last week at the headquarters of Nike, a company that has used “sweatshop” labor overseas — a particular sore point with progressive groups.

Even as the White House was trying to patch up relations with Democratic lawmakers, Mr. Earnest tossed more criticism at Mrs. Warren by saying her claims that the pact is being negotiated in secret “are just not true.”

“If people do want to raise a substantive objection to pursuing this strategy, then they should stick to the facts,” Mr. Earnest said. We’re interested in a substantive debate. But we don’t have to say things that aren’t true in order to have this debate.”

Mr. Earnest defended the decision to visit Nike.

“This is the debate that we want to have, because this is the substance of the debate,” he said. “We are well aware that there are people in both parties that have raised concerns about Nike’s previous practices in terms of doing business overseas. The question right now is, ‘What are we going to do about it?’ And what we see from progressives is a lot of complaining about it.”

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