President Barack Obama’s stunning loss on Capitol Hill Friday at the hands of his own Democratic party threatens his ambitious trade plans and potentially imperils his agenda in his final 19 months in office.
When the new Congress began in January, key Republicans viewed trade as a linchpin issue that would determine if the two squabbling parties could work together on other issues; revamping the corporate tax, for instance, and other provisions sought by employers as an economic boost.
But the shocking 302-126 trade vote defeat, engineered by the president's own party that thwarts – for now – the centerpiece of his economic agenda, suggests the two sides are unlikely to accomplish much. In fact, they appear increasingly likely to battle later in the year over raising the debt ceiling, and perhaps even government shutdown.
The loss came even as Obama – oft-criticized for not engaging enough with members of Congress – made a rare trip to the Capitol to twist arms just hours before the vote. Late Thursday, he scrambled a presidential motorcade for a surprise trip to the annual congressional baseball game, where he lobbied members in the dugouts.
White House officials refused to cast the move as a defeat, noting that Senate Democrats had initially voted to block the president’s request for fast-track trade authority before reversing themselves only days later.
“I’m tempted to walk out here and say it’s deja vu all over again,” White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said, suggesting the Democratic sinking of the measure was simply a “procedural snafu.”
He rejected suggestions that the vote had rendered Obama a lame duck.
Earnest said Obama’s overtures would continue, as House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, moved to ensure that the issue comes back for another vote next week.
“Clearly, what I would concede is that our work is not done yet,” Earnest said.
Boehner called the issue a matter of American leadership.
“When America leads, the world is safer – for freedom, and for free enterprise,” he said. “When we don’t lead, we’re allowing – and frankly, essentially inviting – China to go right on setting the rules of the world economy. And we’re keeping our workers and our products on the sidelines.”
The president’s loss on the trade issue came when the House rejected a bill to reauthorize a trade-adjustment assistance program that provides aid for workers who lose their jobs due to global trade.
After Obama lost, the House took a symbolic vote, approving fast-track authority on a vote of 219 to 211, but the vote meant little. Under voting procedures set by the House, the trade-adjustment assistance bill had to pass before lawmakers could successfully advance the plan for for fast-track authority.
Fast-track means granting the president the authority to negotiate international agreements that Congress can vote up or down, but can’t amend or filibuster. Earnest argued that was a tougher call and praised the House’s “bipartisan” passage of the fast-track authority bill, noting there were 28 Democratic supporters, despite “a lot of skepticism” inside the party.
He called the vote a “good sign of the kind of bipartisan majority the president was seeking to build.”
But that vote happened only after Obama lost the support of House Minority leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., who argued that voting against the trade-adjustment assistance, long a favorite program for Democrats, was the “only way to slow down the fast-track.”
Democrats in the House want to block the president’s request for fast-track make it tougher for Obama to get any future trade pact through Congress.
If Democrats stick to their guns when the issue comes back for another vote next week, it will be much harder for Obama’s trade team to wrap up the trade talks with the 11 other nations in the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact.
For months, administration officials have argued that it would be harder to win concessions from foreign countries at the bargaining table if they knew that Congress could change the terms of a trade agreement.
The Pacific partnership plan is the centerpiece of Obama’s economic agenda and a goal that he has spent his entire presidency pursuing. Supporters of free-trade authority made it clear the fight is far from over.
Republican leaders will try to turn the tide by forcing more votes next week, hoping enough Democrats will change their minds on the trade-adjustment assistance bill to allow both measures to pass.
And Pelosi suggested an opening, writing to colleagues after the vote that the “prospects for passage of a such a bill will greatly increase with the passage of a robust highway bill.”
Under the arcane rules of the House, Boehner could move to pass the trade promotion bill without the assistance package, and appoint a conference committee to bridge differences with the Senate.
That, however, would require passage of a new rule to allow the House to vote on a bill without adjustment assistance.
If it gets to that, Democrats who insisted on trade-adjustment assistance could find themselves worse off, said Bruce Josten, vice president of government affairs for the influential U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
"House Democrats now run the risk that a conference report will permanently kill Trade Adjustment Assistance altogether, and may be willing to be more cooperative on the next vote to dodge that outcome," Josten said.
While Obama won plenty of backing from GOP lawmakers and business executives, he fell flat in selling his ideas to his own party, with many Democrats saying the White House was no longer representing middle-class Americans.
“It's little bit stunning to say the least," said Republican pollster David Winston, who has worked closely with congressional Republicans. "He goes to the congressional baseball the night before, he goes to the hill, and this wasn't even close."
Winston said it was “hard to piece together right now the implications of what it means for how (Obama) manages the last 18 months in office. He is going to have to go back and do a reset in terms of his thinking on how he deals with, not just Republicans, but with Democrats in Congress."
Democratic pollster Mark Mellman, countered that the trade issue was different and questioned there would long-term fallout for the president.
“There is no question this is a big issue,” he said. “But the reality is this is a unique issue because it has divided Democrats for a long time. I don’t think it carries over.”
Democrats, who huddled with Obama for an hour Friday morning, left their meeting unconvinced.
“The only people who are pushing fast-track are lobbyists and big corporations,” said Rep. Nydia Velazquez, D-N.Y.
Rep. Marcy Kaptur, D-Ohio, called the president’s plan “a great deal for Wall Street,” but “another punch to the gut” for middle-class Americans.
Still, the president got high marks from some for showing up at the Capitol.
Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., called the president’s presentation “very powerful.”
“He just asked people to ‘play it straight, vote your values,’” he said.
Said Rep. Steve Israel, D-N.Y: “Everyone’s going to have to go back to the drawing board...My guess is that the drawing board’s going to end up looking like something Albert Einstein would have had in his laboratory.”
Republicans, offering unusual support for Obama, praised the trade bill as a way for the U.S. to remain competitive globally.
“The world is watching us right now,” said Republican Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee.
Kevin Hall contributed.
CORRECTION: An earlier version gave the wrong title for House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.