Ami Bera had welcome news when he visited the White House last month.
The second-term Democratic congressman from Elk Grove, Calif., told President Barack Obama that he would back his request for fast-track trade promotion authority, a plan to help pass the proposed 12-nation Asian trade deal called the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
“Giving the president the ability to negotiate the deal is the right thing to do,” Bera said in an interview in his Capitol Hill office this week.
Usually, it wouldn’t be worth the drive up Pennsylvania Avenue for a Democrat to side with the Democratic president. But the question of trade is dividing the party. Bera is one of only 13 Democrats in the House of Representatives who’ve pledged to support the president’s fast-track request. And he’s the only one of California’s 39 House Democrats to publicly side with Obama.
The split among Democrats is jeopardizing the president’s bid for the top economic prize of his second term, a pact that the White House says would create thousands of American jobs as it sets new trade rules for Japan and 40 percent of the world’s economy.
The party fissure burst into full display Tuesday, when Senate Democrats blocked a debate over the fast-track bill, throwing the issue into temporary limbo. It’s back on track after senators reconsidered Thursday and decided to proceed after all.
Even if the measure passes the Senate though, as many now predict, Obama will have much more arm-twisting to do when the bill hits the House floor in early June.
So far, only 67 House Republicans have said they’ll vote for the legislation. And vote counters predict the bill will end up drawing support from as few as 15 House Democrats or as many as 40.
Democratic opponents say they’ve grown weary of watching trade pacts put downward pressure on U.S. wages and send more jobs overseas.
“I’m not surprised he has had a tough time,” said Rep. John Garamendi, D-Calif. “The Democratic Party is the party of working men and women, and this party has been very concerned for at least a decade and a half about the loss of American jobs. . . . The capital leaves the United States, leaves the workers behind and seeks the cheapest labor in the world.”
Bera said 95 percent of the world’s consumers now lived overseas, with Asian nations accounting for the fastest-growing markets. And he said the Pacific Rim trade pact could be a boon for the West Coast economy.
“All the Western states – Washington state, Oregon and California – all benefit from opening up these export markets,” he said. “There’s a real opportunity to revive the manufacturing sector in the United States, and certainly in California.”
Despite the potential benefits, Bera said his support for the fast-track bill didn’t mean he was ready to back the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
“As I said to the president when he asked for my vote, I said, ‘I’ll give you the support to negotiate the deal, but if you negotiate a bad deal, you don’t have my vote on TPP,’ ” Bera said.
Many trade opponents note the irony of Obama taking on his party’s left wing, siding with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, against the likes of Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., one of the leading opponents. On Thursday, McConnell said the president “has done his country a service by taking on his base” and promoting more trade. “He should be recognized for it,” McConnell said.
And many trade opponents are eager to hand Obama a high-profile defeat, angry that he abandoned their cause after criticizing U.S. trade policies as a presidential candidate in 2008, even proposing to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement.
Even before they get to the deal, many Democrats fear the fast-track negotiating authority. If approved, it would allow Obama to submit a deal to Congress for an up-or-down vote with no option for amendments.
Garamendi said he and many other Democrats thought it would be wrong for members of Congress to give up the right to amend trade agreements.
“The president’s trade negotiations, we believe, will harm the American middle class,” he said. “We’re looking at what’s good for our constituents, not what’s good for Japan or Vietnam or Brunei.”
California’s most powerful Democratic House member, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, joined the critics Thursday. She said Obama’s request for fast-track authority could cover six years and should be shortened. She said she feared that future administrations would get similar “carte blanche” trade authority that would affect other deals.
The issue is spilling into the 2016 presidential campaign, as well.
Hillary Clinton, the front-runner for the party’s presidential nomination, backed the Trans-Pacific Partnership as Obama’s secretary of state but has been silent on the fast-track issue since entering the presidential race.
Bera, who won his two congressional races by close margins, is already on the radar of trade opponents, who want to defeat him next year.
Fast-track opponents jumped on him earlier this month when he announced his support for the fast-track bill in an opinion piece in McClatchy’s Sacramento Bee, lifting phrases from a White House economic report and talking points from business groups.
Bera apologized for the incident, blaming a staff member for the misstep.
“We should have been a little bit more careful with the language,” he said this week. “We put in a corrective action plan and we disciplined the staff member.”
But Bera said he wasn’t concerned that his decision to back the fast-track bill would hurt him on the campaign trail.
“When I ran, I ran to put people above politics,” he said. “I made the decision based on the policy. The politics are what they are.”