- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 26, 2015

After a victory in the Senate, President Obama’s push for a huge free-trade deal with Asia faces a higher hurdle in the House, where an unusual coalition of conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats oppose granting him more executive power.

While Republican lawmakers have been fighting Mr. Obama’s “power grab” for years, even some members of the president’s own party are now using the argument about executive overreaching to defy his request for special trade-promotion authority.

“It’s a harder sell,” said Patrick Griffin, an American University official who ran President Clinton’s legislative affairs office. “It makes what President Obama and [Speaker John] Boehner have to do a lot more challenging.”

In recent weeks, House Democrats such as Reps. David Scott of Georgia and Joe Courtney of Connecticut have raised the issue of expanded presidential power as a reason to oppose trade promotion authority, which requires Congress to vote on a final trade deal without the ability to amend it. The House could take up the bill when it returns next week.

“The damage that can be done by poorly crafted trade agreements is something that is very personal and harmful to not only workers and their families, but to communities,” Mr. Courtney said in a recent conference call. “That’s why all of us who took the oath cannot stand by and let a process go into effect that handcuffs our ability to amend provisions of a profound document that’s going to last for decades, and basically deprive ourselves of the opportunity to offer amendments, to make improvements to address issues that we know exist out there.”

Those Democrats are being joined by a solid bloc of as many as 50 House Republicans who’ve been railing for years against Mr. Obama’s use of his executive “pen and phone” to expand presidential authority ranging from environmental rules to immigration amnesty orders. Among the prominent GOP opponents is Rep. James Jordan, Ohio Republican who chairs the House Freedom Caucus, a group of about three dozen GOP lawmakers seeking to move House Republicans to the right. Mr. Jordan is leaning “no” on TPA but has not announced how he will vote.

“It is inconceivable that a Republican who has opposed Obama’s power grabs could then vote to trust Obama with an issue as important as Obamatrade,” said Rick Manning, president of Americans for Limited Government, an advocacy group opposed to trade-promotion authority that is airing radio ads nationwide targeting vulnerable lawmakers. “We’re dealing with someone who has a track record.”

The Trans-Pacific Partnership would cover 12 nations, including the U.S., Japan, Vietnam and Australia. The countries involved in the negotiations account for nearly 40 percent of global economic output.

As the House gears up for a vote, a coalition of liberal groups opposed to the trade bill also is targeting lawmakers in their home districts this week with demonstrations at their congressional offices, including Rep. Ami Bera, the only California Democrat to announce his support of the so-called “fast-track” authority, and Rep. Mike Quigley, the only Illinois Democrat to do the same.

In the Senate last week, 14 Democrats joined 48 Republicans to give Mr. Obama fast-track authority, overcoming vocal opposition from Democrats such as Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts. White House press secretary Josh Earnest said Tuesday that the administration is prepared for a tougher fight in the House.

“The White House has already been very mindful, including the president, of how difficult a challenge this will be in the House of Representatives,” Mr. Earnest said. “I believe it will actually be more difficult to build bipartisan support in the House than it was in the Senate.”

He said the president and his aides are making the case that expanded free trade and increased exports will boost economic opportunities for middle-class families in the U.S.

“We’ve been preparing the ground in advance of House consideration of this legislation and we’re certainly going to be making a case that’s consistent with the case that we made in the United States Senate that yielded the support of about a third of the Democrats in the Senate,” Mr. Earnest said.

The issue has created a rift in the GOP as well, with Mr. Boehner and most other House leaders in favor of fast-track authority. The speaker is hoping for at least 30 Democratic votes to offset the significant opposition in his own party, but the number of Democrats who’ve announced their support so far is about half that.

“Leadership doesn’t have a whip count on this that says they can win,” Mr. Manning said. “There’s probably 40 to 50 [Republicans] hard against right now, and another 50 or 60 who are truly undecided. So the leadership has a long way to go to get the votes they need.”

It’s a difficult dynamic for the president to overcome, because Republican lawmakers generally support free trade. But Mr. Griffin, the former Clinton aide who is now academic director of American University’s Public Affairs and Advocacy Institute for Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies, said he believes Mr. Obama will pull out a victory.

“The president has a lot to offer to Democrats, even those who might not be sympathetic,” Mr. Griffin said. “When a president calls a member of his own party … it’s a powerful call. Whether it’s a personal appeal, or his legacy, or a ride on Air Force One, he’s got things he can do.”

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