As the House of Representatives prepared for a showdown vote Friday on President Barack Obama’s trade agenda, all eyes were on the undecided.
In North Carolina, would Republican Rep. Mark Meadows vote for fast-track trade promotion authority, despite his worries that the president’s plan would do nothing to crack down on human trafficking in Malaysia?
And in California, how many of the state’s 39 Democrats would back Obama? So far, only two have pledged to do so: Reps. Sam Farr and Ami Bera, who’s taken a beating from labor.
Obama’s difficulties were obvious in Washington state, where the two remaining undecided Democratic members broke their silence on Thursday: Reps. Adam Smith and Denny Heck both said they would vote against the president’s plan.
After months of aggressive lobbying, both sides braced for a close vote. The outcome will determine whether the president suffers a high-profile defeat or one of the biggest wins of his second term.
“I hope that clear minds will prevail,” said North Carolina Republican Rep. Robert Pittenger, who said he would vote for the trade bill. But he added: “You know, a lot of my team doesn’t trust the president, and we have reason not to.”
With only 20 of the 188 House Democrats promising publicly to back the president, even House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California had not yet disclosed how she would vote.
At his weekly news conference on Capitol Hill, House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio was said he was “encouraged” but declined to predict a victory.
“I’m not in the guaranteeing business,” he said.
At the White House, Press Secretary Josh Earnest said that Obama had called Boehner to discuss the vote, adding that “hope does continue to spring eternal.”
If approved by the House, the bill would set the rules of debate for future trade pacts, including the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a 12-nation trade pact that Obama has pursued since taking office in 2009. Once a trade agreement is negotiated and submitted to Congress for approval, members could only take an up-or-down vote, giving up their rights to filibuster to offer amendments.
Backers say that such a process would make it easier to get a trade pact through Congress, while opponents say it would be a mistake to hand over so much power to the president.
In North Carolina, Republican Reps. Richard Hudson and Patrick McHenry planned to join their colleague Pittenger in backing Obama, while Meadows remained a holdout.
Meadows, a second-term congressman and a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, spelled out his concerns in an opinion piece published in the Washington Times on Tuesday. He said the U.S. should not grant preferential trade treatment to Malaysia, one of the 12 countries in the Trans-Pacific Partnership, because of its dismal record with human trafficking.
“We send the wrong message to the rest of the world if we reward a nation guilty of abuses that go against everything for which our great nation stands,” Meadows wrote.
In a statement Thursday, Meadows added: “I’m a free-trader but have serious concerns about the legislation coming before the House.”
In an interview, Pittenger called the bill important and said Congress should pass it to help American workers.
“China has frankly eclipsed us and they will become the dominant trade partner in the world,” he said.
In Washington state, all four Republican House members – Cathy McMorris Rodgers, Dave Reichert, Jaime Herrera Beutler and Dan Newhouse – are expected to vote for the bill. Three Democrats – Derek Kilmer, Rick Larsen and Suzan DelBene – will back it, while Democratic Rep. Jim McDermott will join Heck and Smith in opposing it.
Heck called trade vital but said other important issues have been ignored during the trade debate, such as overhauling the immigration system, repairing infrastructure and reauthorizing the Export-Import Bank.
“If we want to build an economy ready to compete with the rest of the world, we need to broaden this trade effort to include a commitment to actions that will bolster our economy back home,” Heck said.
Smith said both the fast-track bill and the Trans-Pacific Partnership “do not do enough to protect workers and the environment” both in the U.S. and overseas.