Democrats rebuff Obama on trade plans
By Tracy Jan
WASHINGTON — House Democrats, including the entire Massachusetts delegation, sidelined President Obama’s trade agenda Friday, a stark repudiation of the president just hours after he made a rare trip to Capitol Hill to plead for support.
The vote reflected deep fears among Democrats about the economic impact of foreign trade deals on middle-class workers and demonstrated the potency of labor unions who lobbied aggressively against the legislation. The bill would lay the groundwork for a sweeping trade pact among Pacific Rim nations.
The resounding defeat of Obama’s top domestic legislative priority also signals a weakened presidency as Obama’s second term begins to wind down. For weeks, Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, cheered on by liberals in Congress and across the country, has led a concerted public effort to defeat the “fast track” trade deal authorization.
“It was a strong signal by House Democrats that we need to make sure these bills are really in the best interest of the American worker,” said Representative Joseph Kennedy III in an interview after the votes. “When we look at the underlying issues with his trade policies, a number of us have concerns.”
Even minority leader Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat who flanked the president on his way in to meet with House Democrats, spoke against the series of bills shortly before casting her “no” vote. She had previously withheld her judgment.
“I will be voting to slow down the fast track to get a better deal for the American people,” Pelosi said on the House floor.
The legislation would have given Obama wide latitude to finish negotiating the trade deal and then bring it back to Congress for a strict up-or-down vote. The Senate passed it last month, 62 to 38, with Republicans joining with Democrats to push it over the top.
In the House, Obama needed even more Republican help. In a dramatic series of votes Friday afternoon, House members first voted 302 to 126 against federal aid for workers who would be displaced by the trade pact. Only 40 of the House’s 188 Democrats voted in favor.
Because of procedural rules that required passage of a full package of bills to send the legislation to the White House, that vote derailed the initiative. Obama had lost.
As a consolation prize that gave supporters, including House Speaker John Boehner some hope of reviving the issue, the House later passed the central element of the package, Trade Promotion Authority, 219 to 211.
But for now, Obama’s defeat casts a shadow on the Pacific trade negotiations with Canada, Mexico, Peru, Chile, New Zealand, Australia, Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei, Vietnam, and Japan.
The Obama administration downplayed Friday’s defeat, with Josh Earnest, White House press secretary, calling it a “procedural snafu.”
Boston business groups expressed disappointment.
“The fast-growing Pacific Rim countries would be an opportunity for us . . . to move forward with something that could benefit the medical device sector in this region,” said Tom Sommer, president of the Massachusetts Medical Device Industry Council, a Boston-based trade group.
Two other large groups, the Associated Industries of Massachusetts and the Massachusetts High Tech Council, also decried the outcome.
“It’s disappointing,” said Christopher P. Geehern, executive vice president at Associated Industries of Massachusetts. “The recriminations and the whole debate within the two parties make it a long shot they would be able to get together and do this anytime soon.”
To illustrate how much was at stake for both the White House and the Republican leadership, Obama and Boehner, an Ohio Republican, continued trying to lobby members until the last moment.
Obama was well received by the Democratic caucus, said those in attendance of the standing-room-only, closed-door meeting. He appealed to members by discussing what drew him to politics as a community organizer in Chicago — helping people who could not help themselves. Upon exiting the meeting, Obama told reporters, “I don’t think you ever nail anything down around here. It’s always moving.”
The liberal, all-Democratic Massachusetts delegation unanimously rejected Obama’s personal appeal, saying their concerns for workers outweighed the interests of the business community.
With no chance for amendments to the ultimate pact, many Democrats also complained that “fast track’’ would unduly tie their hands.
“The president’s attempt was valiant. Everybody gave him credit for showing up,” said Representative Stephen Lynch, a Boston Democrat. “But at the end of the day, most members are guided by their sense of purpose, whether this helps their constituents or hurts them.”
Lynch said he spent several hours recently poring over hundreds of pages of the classified Trans-Pacific Partnership deal at a secure location in the Capitol building. He described it as “vague’’ and “aspirational.”
“It says words to the effect that the parties shall endeavor to engage in an agreement to protect labor rights and things like that,” Lynch said, “but there is no hard and fast and forcible language that would protect workers or the environment of those countries.”
Lynch, who once worked at the GM plant in Framingham that no longer exists, said he cannot see why multinational corporations and the pharmaceutical industry were able to assist in drafting the guidelines for the agreement while Congress sits on the sidelines.
“Those people have an extreme profit motive,” Lynch said. “We represent American workers and we’re outside the process. That’s not right.”
Not even lobbying by the pharmaceutical and high-tech industries across Boston, which stand to benefit from looser trade limits, could sway Representative Michael Capuano.
“I respect them. But I respectfully disagree with them,” said Capuano, a Somerville Democrat. “I don’t think they would ever give up their right to negotiate a contract. Why should I?”
While nearly all of the Massachusetts delegation had previously indicated their opposition to the set of bills, Representative Seth Moulton, a Salem Democrat and the delegation’s newest member, did not announce his final decision until Friday, after seeing the text of the legislation which shifted even in recent days.
Moulton said he has held dozens of constituent meetings and spoken to numerous interest groups on both sides of the issue. He has received pressure from the AFL-CIO, which ran ads in his district urging constituents to press him to vote against the bill.
On Thursday the North Shore Labor Council and other labor allies rallied outside Moulton’s Peabody Square office and met with his staff.
Representative Bill Keating, a Bourne Democrat whose district includes fishing and garment businesses, said his constituents fear the trade deal would hurt American manufacturing jobs. “To me, the district trumps all of the special interests,” Keating said.
Kennedy, too, said his office phones have been ringing off the hook with constituents expressing overwhelming concern that the agreement cedes too much worker protection. In contrast, he said, business groups have not been as vocal.
Boehner indicated Friday that the House would take up the bill that failed, the Trade Adjustment Assistance, again next week in an effort to move the trade package forward. But some expressed skepticism that the White House would be able to get enough Democrats to reverse their votes.
“Republicans did our part,” Boehner said in a statement. “This is an opportunity for the Democratic Party to take stock and move forward in a constructive fashion on behalf of the American people.”