06.02.15

Obama's trust-me approach falls flat with Democrats

President Obama’s argument that Democrats should trust his vision on trade is falling flat on Capitol Hill.

Democrats — even some of Obama’s closest allies — say it’s not enough for the president to pronounce his trade agenda the most progressive in history.

The lawmakers want assurances that the agreements under negotiation, particularly a huge deal being finalized with Pacific Rim nations, will protect U.S. jobs — assurances many say they simply haven’t gotten. 

“I take the president at his word that he believes … the argument he’s making, but I think he’s wrong,” Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.) said Wednesday. 

“The analysis I’ve done comes to a very different conclusion,” he added. “It’s clear that this will, in the long term, not result in the growth of American jobs and an increase in wages.”

Rep. G.K. Butterfield (D-N.C.), head of the Congressional Black Caucus, said he’s in talks with administration officials, who have yet to convince him the president’s trade agenda would create jobs in North Carolina.

“I’m still at the place I’ve always been: leaning no,” Butterfield said Wednesday.   

“There’s a difference between growing the economy and helping American companies grow the bottom line, and creating jobs,” he added.

Trade promotion authority (TPA), also known as fast-track, passed the Senate last month but faces a tougher road in the House.

Sponsored by Sens. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and Ron Wyden (D-Ore) and Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), the bill would grant Congress an up-or-down vote on Obama’s trade deals, but deny lawmakers the power to amend or filibuster those agreements. The additional power is seen as necessary to Obama finalizing the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) — a 12-nation behemoth that stands as a top priority in his second term.

The president has acknowledged the failures of trade pacts of the past — particularly the North American Free Trade Agreement, signed by former President Clinton. But he’s sought to reassure Congress that he’s learned from those mistakes and is negotiating the “most progressive trade deal in history.”

“When people say this trade deal is bad for working families, they don’t know what they’re talking about,” Obama said in April. “My entire presidency has been about working families.”

The White House pitch has paid some dividends, as several on-the-fence House Democrats have come out in recent weeks behind fast-track. Reps. Ami Bera (Calif.) and Rick Larsen (Wash.) are two such backers, and Rep. Jim Himes (D-Conn.) become the latest supporter on Wednesday, arguing that the TPP would be a boon for his export-heavy district. 

“I’ll probably be very lonely in New England,” Himes said by phone.

“But my district is a very strong exporting district. … It’s got the possibility of increasing exports and growing jobs.”

But the vast majority of House Democrats oppose the president’s trade agenda, naming a long list of concerns — from food safety to the environment, currency manipulation to labor rights and the loss of U.S. jobs.

They’re also accusing the administration of pushing trade agreements benefiting corporations and other well-heeled interests, while leaving working-class Americans out in the cold. 

Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) characterized the TPP as “a secret deal negotiated in back rooms and designed to help multinational corporations reap trillions while Americans lose their jobs.” 

Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.) said assertions that fast-track will help the working class have “no accountability whatsoever.”

“There is no way as an elected official you can say you are … fighting for working families and still vote for this kind of bill,” he said.

Driving that point home, top Democrats on Wednesday joined forces with labor unions and other TPA critics to trumpet a petition with 2 million signatures opposing the legislation.

Democratic support will be crucial to the TPA’s success, because GOP leaders are struggling to rally the votes to pass the measure on their own.

Yet Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) on Wednesday acknowledged in an interview on Fox News Radio’s “Kilmeade & Friends” that he doesn’t have the votes to pass fast-track.

“I don’t think we’re quite there yet,” he said.

Republicans have talked about winning 200 votes for fast-track from their conference, a high bar given many in the House GOP are reflexively against voting to grant Obama additional powers.

If the GOP sees more than 50 of its members defect — a real possibility — Democrats would need to provide about two dozen votes.

Only 16 Democrats are yes votes on The Hill’s Whip List.

  The White House is confident its outreach strategy will succeed in swaying enough undecided Democrats for fast-track to pass.

“We’re not expecting to lose it,” press secretary Josh Earnest said when asked about the House vote, while cautioning there is still work to be done.

Obama is offering his full support to Democrats who back him on trade and face blowback from unions and liberal groups in primary elections.

“Those who are concerned about it, I think, do take a lot of solace in knowing that they can count on the support of President Barack Obama in a Democratic primary if they need it,” Earnest said, noting that surveys show the president is “the most popular, influential and well-liked figure in Democratic politics.”

But in a setback for the White House, two undecided Democrats — Reps. John Carney (Del.) and Cedric Richmond (La.) — said this week that they’re leaning no. 

“I’ve got a whole set of criteria as it relates to Delaware, and there are a number of things that they’re just not there yet on,” Carney said. 

Obama’s battle with Democrats over trade has been intense, and there were further signs of the strain on Wednesday.

Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.), who opposes fast-track, argued on “The Bill Press Show” that the White House is taking the issue too personally by promising to stand behind those who back Obama on trade.

“What it suggests to me is this is really personal for the president,” she said. “He’s basically saying, ‘For the seven years that you’ve kind of had my back and been with me, [it’s] irrelevant. Because I’m making all my decisions now on TPP and TPA.’

“And I don’t think that’s a good message to be sending to Democrats frankly, if you’re trying to ensure that some of them who are waffling right now are going to stand with you,” she said.

Speier went on to say that Democrats don’t have great feelings for Obama after his seven years in office.

Asked if Obama has a reservoir of goodwill with House Democrats, she said: “I can’t say that he does.”

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