WASHINGTON – Union-backed Democrats launched a last-ditch effort Thursday to scuttle President Barack Obama's trade agenda by sacrificing a favored program of their own that retrains workers displaced by international trade.
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The retraining program was linked to the Democrats' real target: legislation to help Obama advance multi-nation trade agreements. In hopes of bringing down the whole package, which they say imperils jobs at home, numerous House Democrats said they would vote Friday against the retraining measure.
House Republicans were in the odd position of supporting Obama's bid for "fast-track" trade-negotiating authority, while the White House struggled to come up with enough Democratic votes to win passage.
In a closed meeting in the Capitol, top White House officials implored Democrats not to deny Obama the trade authority. Such a vote, they said, would block needed trade expansion for the nation and sink a major priority of the Democratic president.
The sometimes emotional exchanges illustrated the high stakes and intense feelings surrounding Obama's bid for "fast track" trade-negotiating authority. Such authority, which previous presidents have enjoyed, would let Obama present Congress with proposed trade agreements that it could ratify or reject but not change.
Obama hopes to advance the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership and other trade proposals that have been negotiated for years.
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Unions vehemently oppose such deals, saying they ship U.S. jobs abroad.
The trade issue's divisiveness was evident when the House voted narrowly, 217-212, on a procedure to advance the package to Friday's expected showdown.
AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka urged House Democrats to do something once unthinkable — reject the retraining program, known as Trade Adjustment Authority, or TAA — as the best means to kill fast track. Those attending the meeting said Trumka told Democrat he would pray for those who oppose the unions' position.
Some senior Democrats are with Trumka, suggesting Friday's votes could be close and dramatic.
"The TAA is the handmaiden to facilitate the whole deal," said Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore. "We have the potential to stop this whole train and revisit the most egregious provisions" of fast track. "It's counterintuitive for Democrats to be voting against it, but President Trumka came and said vote against it."
The strategy could scuttle the whole package, because many Republicans have long records of opposing the jobs retraining program, which they consider wasteful.
The biggest questions hanging over the House late Thursday were: How many of the 188 Democrats will vote against TAA because it's the best way to kill fast track? And how many of the 246 Republicans might hold their noses and vote for the jobs program in a bid to save fast track?
Rep. Richard Hudson, R-N.C., said of the Democrats: "It's in their hands, they have to pass TAA. We can only deliver a certain number of votes for TAA. So we'll see. We're calling their bluff. If they want to bring it down, then it's going to be a crushing blow to their president."
If the jobs program survives a first vote, the House will vote on fast track. Presumably the politics would be reversed, with many Republicans and as few as 20 Democrats voting for the legislation.
The Senate linked the two measures when it passed the trade package after a long, heated debate earlier this year. Pro-trade lawmakers are desperate not to change the Senate bill in any way, because that would send it back to that chamber, giving opponents multiple chances to try again.
Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., a fast track supporter, said it's not clear what will happen Friday and it's possible that both fast track and the jobs program will fail. "It's going to be a nail biter," he said.
He said it's cynical for Trumka and others to urge a vote against the training legislation as a means to halt the broader bill.
"I find it a strange strategy that puts at risk the interests of working men and women," Connolly said.
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, declined to predict the trade package's fate. "I'm not in the guaranteeing business," Boehner told reporters after conferring with Obama on the phone. "I know he's working on it and I hope he's successful."
The House's top Democrat, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California, remained publicly uncommitted. She has sought to maintain leverage to the end to sweeten the package for workers disadvantaged by trade.
In a bid to soften Democratic opposition, Republicans agreed to pay for the jobs program with various tax penalties. Many Democrats had balked at the Senate version, which would fund the jobs program with money once earmarked for Medicare.
The revised plan easily cleared the House Thursday in an opening round of votes. But some Democrats noted the Medicare-funding language technically remains in the Senate-passed fast track bill, scheduled for a crucial vote Friday.
Voting for that bill, they said, could invite campaign attack ads accusing the lawmaker of seeking to cut Medicare.
The vote could be explained away, they said, but some cited the political adage, "If you're explaining, you're losing."