For Texas Democratic Rep. Henry Cuellar of Laredo, trade is part of his DNA.
The conservative lawmaker, who represents the border with Mexico, is so sold on granting President Barack Obama trade deal-making authority that he has even been lobbying Republicans.
“I’ve been working the floor, personally,” Cuellar said in an interview, as he ticked off the importance of U.S. trade with Mexico, which he said is $1.3 billion a day. “Texas is the number one exporting state,” he said.
The upcoming vote, which could come as soon as next week, is expected to be close, with Democrats expected to provide the difference in the outcome. And Democrats are feeling the heat.
Organized labor has been working the issue hard, threatening to cut support for lawmakers who support the so-called Trade Promotion Authority.
Unions maintain that giving the president the right to negotiate trade deals that cannot be amended by Congress – lawmakers would only be able to vote up or down on them – hurts labor rights and environmental causes. Labor is poised to fight because it opposes the first deal that would come under the trading authority, the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
Years in the works, the deal would be a free trade zone arrangement for the Pacific region along the lines of the North American Free Trade Agreement.
Some Republicans, who would usually be counted on to favor trade pacts, are also unwilling to support the bill out of distrust of Obama to negotiate favorable trade pacts.
And that has meant Democrats are being expected to deliver votes for the White House. So far, according to a vote count kept by the news outlet, “The Hill,” which covers Congress, only 15 Democrats are prepared to support it. House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said that “it’s not my responsibility” to deliver the votes.
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, she said, should be able to deliver at least 200 of his 246 members, she said. There are 188 Democrats.
Of Texas’ 11 Democrats, only Cuellar and Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson are committed to TPA. Three others are opposed. The rest have not said how they will vote.
The issue has hit home with Democrats in the Congressional Black Caucus, whose members are torn between supporting the nation’s first African American president and the party’s traditional base.
Johnson is African American, but Texas’ other black Democratic lawmakers – Marc Veasey of Fort Worth, and Al Green and Sheila Jackson Lee, both of Houston – are undecided.
Veasey won’t talk about the issue publicly, declining three requests through a spokesperson to speak to McClatchy. According to the nonpartisan OpenSecrets.org, two of Veasey’s top five industry contributors in the 2014 election cycle were unions, based on federal campaign data .
Johnson said in a statement that she had closely studied the trade deals being negotiated.
“I have personally sat down individually and in a roundtable setting with local union leaders, chambers of commerce, and the United States Trade Representative, Ambassador Michael Froman,” she said. “While each group has valid concerns, I must recognize that the Dallas and Texas economies largely depend on trade and specifically export goods... If a trade deal comes to the House floor, I will be inclined to support it.”
The AFL-CIO has already threatened some lawmakers who support the TPA bill, targeting Rep. Ami Bera, D-Calif., one of the Democrats’ most vulnerable members who won a close election in 2014. The unions are threatening to cut funding and support or recruit challengers.
“They’re making him the example,” said Cuellar of Bera. “Labor unions have been pretty vocal, extremely vocal. They’re threatening people.”
To Cuellar, issues in Congress generally revolve around policy or politics. “In this case,” he said, “I think it’s moved into politics.”