House Democrats are in a pressure cooker ahead of a high-stakes vote on a vital piece of President Obama’s ambitious trade agenda.
The White House, joining the powerful business lobby, is applying a full court press in an effort to rally lawmakers behind contentious fast-track legislation that would grant the administration new powers to seal enormous international trade deals that would rank atop Obama’s economic legacy.
The effort is being countered by a lobbying blitz — and unveiled threats, by some accounts — from labor unions, environmentalists and other liberal groups warning of the detrimental effect such deals would have on a range of quality-of-life issues, not least the erosion of U.S. jobs.
Squeezed in the middle are dozens of on-the-fence Democrats whose votes will likely prove crucial to the fate of the trade-promotion authority (TPA) legislation, which squeaked through the Senate last week and now heads to the lower chamber.
GOP leaders want to move the bill quickly when Congress returns to Washington next week after a holiday recess, but lack enough GOP support to do so without Democratic votes.
Rarely have the minority Democrats faced such a difficult choice. On one hand, they want to support their ally in the White House on the top economic priority of his second term. On the other, they feel burned by the false promises of trade deals past and have deep-seated concerns that Obama’s agenda — particularly a sweeping 12-nation accord with Pacific Rim nations that’s nearing finalization — would prove little different.
“Just because the administration says it’s the most progressive trade deal in history doesn’t make it so,” said Bill Samuel, director of government affairs at the AFL-CIO.
If the arguments haven’t changed, the lobbying intensity has.
Obama this month staged a high-profile speech at Nike headquarters in Oregon to tout the economic benefits the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman has prowled the halls of the Capitol complex explaining the proposed deal’s nuances and urging support. And the president called dozens of House Democrats to the White House for a rare two-hour meeting in which he vowed to use all his political capital to defend supporting lawmakers from campaign attacks, left or right.
They may need the help.
Labor groups have threatened enormous, million-dollar ad buys against a pair of West Coast Democrats if they back the measure, according to a House Democratic aide whose boss supports the TPA.
“They’ve made this range of threats — name something off and they’ve done it,” the aide said.
A number of opposition groups contacted for this story declined to weigh in on the veracity of such claims, but were quick to emphasize that they won’t soon forget Democrats who support the legislation.
Murshed Zaheed, deputy political director at CREDO Action, said the group “will be highly aware of which Democrats supported ramming through the TPP” by backing fast track. Justin Krebs, campaign director at MoveOn, echoed the threat.
“We’re going to be looking at primary candidates,” Krebs said. “We’re definitely not going to let them off the hook.”
The Coalition to Stop Fast Track, a band of liberal groups that includes the AFL-CIO, CREDO, the ACLU and the Sierra Club, organized more than 100 events over the Memorial Day recess — ranging from protests to phone banks to visits to lawmaker offices — designed to pressure Democrats to oppose the trade legislation.
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