WASHINGTON – Landmark trade legislation hangs on life support after Democrats on Capitol Hill derailed it in a brutal defeat for President Barack Obama. The White House and GOP leaders are vowing to try to revive it, but they face long odds against House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and dozens of union-backed Democrats.
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The predicament leaves Obama's ambitious trade agenda in serious doubt at a moment when he's searching for a capstone achievement for his second term. Without so-called fast-track authority to negotiate trade deals Congress can approve or reject but not amend, Obama has little chance of securing the 12-nation Pacific Rim pact his administration has been working toward for years.
The outcome spotlights the strained relations between Obama and congressional Democrats, who voted down a worker assistance program crucial to the fast-track bill just hours after the president implored them not to. With Obama and Republican House Speaker John Boehner working in rare tandem, their inability to deliver the trade bill raises the question of whether much else will get done with Republicans controlling Congress and Obama in the White House for the next 18 months.
"This isn't over yet," Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., a lead author of the trade legislation, said after Friday's votes. "I'm hopeful that the Democrats understand the consequences and get together with the president and finish this as soon as possible."
Yet supporters of the trade deal have few good options.
House GOP leaders took steps that would allow another vote on the worker retraining program in coming days, but that would require at least 90 votes to shift. Republicans sounded pessimistic that they could add many more votes for a program most on their side deride as wasteful and unnecessary. With Pelosi and her allies determined to oppose the trade adjustment assistance program as a way to bring down the fast-track bill, it seemed unlikely that enough Democratic votes would emerge to save the program, even though the party has promoted it for years.
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"Some of my Democratic colleagues are in danger of self-immolation on the TAA. I think that's sad," said Rep. Kurt Schrader, D-Ore., one of the small group of Democrats who backed Obama on Friday's votes. "American workers deserve to be protected."
Another possible route is to send revised legislation back to the Senate. But senators approved the larger package only narrowly last month after intense battles, and the White House desperately wants to avoid giving opponents there another chance to strangle the legislation.
Still, Obama and trade backers in Congress were not ready to declare defeat.
White House press secretary Josh Earnest dismissed Friday's outcome as an "entanglement" and "procedural snafu" and said Obama remained determined "to build a bipartisan majority to make sure that we're living up to our commitment as Democrats to fight for middle-class families."
But it was more than a snafu that caused Pelosi and the majority of House Democrats to revolt against their president, so eager to kill the fast-track measure they would sacrifice a favored worker retraining program in the process. The Senate linked the two measures, so even though the House voted on worker retraining separate from fast track — it was narrowly approved — both had to pass for the whole package to go to Obama for his signature.
The White House, congressional Republicans and business groups argued that the fast-track authority is a necessary tool to strike trade deals opening up crucial new markets to American goods. Union-backed House Democrats never bought the argument, burned by promises from past administrations about trade deals they blame for job and manufacturing losses in their districts.
Trade bills have always had a tough road in Congress. After election losses in recent years the House Democratic caucus is smaller and more liberal, attuned to economic issues in the wake of the financial sector meltdown and recession.
Against that backdrop Obama was not able to bring enough House Democrats his way, and Pelosi herself, from trade-dependent San Francisco, announced on the House floor at the last moment that she would be siding with the majority of her caucus and against her president.
"We want a better deal for America's workers," she said.
Friday's crucial vote came when 144 House Democrats joined 158 Republicans to reject extension of the Trade Adjustment Assistance program.
Moments later, the House did vote, 219-211, to endorse the fast-track portion of the package, with 28 Democrats joining Republicans. But that could go nowhere without the first part. And now it looks like it perhaps never will.
Associated Press writers Charles Babington, David Espo, Alan Fram and Jim Kuhnhenn contributed to this report.