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In a move that was a decided blow to President Barack Obama's trade agenda, Democratic lawmakers in the House helped undermine legislation aimed at shoring up the administration’s ability to negotiate a sweeping multinational trade pact.
The series of surprising votes came mere hours after President Obama headed to Capitol Hill Friday morning in a last-minute effort to try to sway Democratic House members to support his trade agenda — a move that rankled some Democrats.
“Basically the president tried to both guilt people and impugn their integrity, and I don’t think it was a very effective tactic,” said Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Oregon. “There were a number of us who were insulted by the approach.”
The overall deal at the core of the debate, the Trans Pacific Partnership, would expand U.S. trade relationships with more than a dozen Pacific nations. President Obama has argued that the agreement would inject a new global vitality into American markets and boost job creation.
To get to a deal, the administration pushed for Trade Promotion Authority — commonly known as "fast-track" authority which would give the president the ability to negotiate a trade deal with other countries without Congress amending it.
The vote on that measure was 219-211.
However, well into the debate, in a dramatic turn of events, Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi announced on the House floor that she would be voting against a measure intended to shield workers who might be adversely affected by the trade deal and the measure giving the president “fast track” authority. Her comments came shortly after Obama appeared at the House Democratic Caucus meeting to try and urge his fellow party members to back the trade measures.
Her rationale: voting against the worker protections measure would stymie “fast track.”
This "is the only way that we will be able to slow down the fast track," Pelosi said.
Shortly after, the House voted 302 to 126 against the financial assistance for displaced workers measure.
Both measures needed to pass in order to move the trade package forward.
While some Republicans, especially those from Rust Belt states, were in favor of the legislation, Democrats were going to have to unite to get the worker protections measure over the finish line. The most vehement opponents of the trade agreement, including the AFL-CIO, urged members to vote against it, saying that defeating the Trade Adjustment Assistance measure would be the fastest way to scuttle the whole deal.
The White House, during a press briefing, portrayed support for "fast track" authority as a good sign and the relationship with Pelosi as remaining "long, warm (and) productive."
"Today, Republicans and Democrats in the House of Representatives voted to help the United States negotiate and enforce strong, high-standard trade deals that are good for American workers and good for American businesses. That's a good thing," the president said in a statement after the vote.
While applauding the passage of "fast track" authority, the president also urged the House to pass the worker assistance measure.
For the White House, the stinging rebuke from the House is déjà vu for the administration which initially faced a similar defeat in the Senate on similar trade legislation.
A key component of the president's trade agenda failed a critical test in the Senate in May when Democrats blocked consideration of a bill that would give the president "fast track" authority to negotiate the massive 12-nation trade pact. The Senate, later that month, took up the measure and passed "fast track" authority for the president.
"At the same time, I also feel a little like Yogi Berra — it's déjà vu all over again," White House press secretary Josh Earnest told reporters on Friday during the daily press briefing. "On May 12 I had to answer questions about how Democratic leaders had delivered defeat and I'm walking out here on June 12 prepared to answer questions that a Democratic leader handed the president a defeat."
Then and now Earnest called the day's vote "a procedural snafu."
In recent weeks, Pelosi shied away from helping garner Democratic support for giving the president "fast track" authority to negotiate a sweeping multinational trade pact — despite the president's heavy push to get the measures passed.
It's a balancing act for the liberal-leaning California Democrat.
The majority of her caucus opposes the legislation amid worries that the Trans-Pacific Partnership will cost American jobs and result in lowered middle class wages.
Shortly after the vote, Pelosi sent a "Dear Colleague" letter to Democratic House members calling for a "better deal".
"The overwhelming vote today is a clear indication that it's time for Republicans to sit down with Democrats to negotiate a trade promotion authority bill that is a better deal for the American people," Pelosi said in the statement.
"Looking forward," she continued "it is important we come together to achieve the best possible trade agenda to promote growth, create jobs and increase the paychecks of American workers."