Hill Democrats MIA on Obama's trade agenda
His administration is pushing for legislation to ease the passage of a pair of massive trade deals, but the White House can’t even find a Democratic co-sponsor in the House. Meanwhile, the bill’s main Democratic backer in the Senate, Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, is on his way out, and key senior Democrats on the committee, including its incoming chairman, say they either don’t support the bill or want to change it.
(Also on POLITICO: Full trade policy coverage)
The free-trade push joins a growing list of policies Obama has championed that are unpopular with Democrats, not the least of which have been agreeing to steep fiscal cuts, using drones abroad, failing to rein in eavesdropping on Americans by the National Security Agency and abandoning the public option in the landmark 2010 heath care overhaul, for which the president has bled support.
The problem isn’t just Obama’s trade policy but also its execution, congressional sources said.
A case in point is the trade promotion authority bill, which would require up-or-down votes with no amendments on trade pacts, including a pair of blockbuster deals the United States is negotiating with Asia-Pacific countries and the European Union.
The legislation allows Congress to weigh in on the direction of the trade talks by including a list of negotiating objectives that lawmakers would like to see the administration pursue. But leading up to last week’s introduction of the bill, members of both parties complained that the Obama administration’s outreach on trade has been disorganized.
(Also on POLITICO: Massive trade bill hits Hill)
The first blow came in August, when the top Democrat on the House Ways and Means Committee, Sander Levin of Michigan, backed out of negotiations on what to include in the bill, leaving Baucus, Senate Finance ranking member Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and the House panel’s chairman, Dave Camp (R-Mich.), short a House Democratic co-sponsor.
House Republicans left it to the White House to find a replacement for Levin. But several sources said obvious targets, such as Rep. Ron Kind (D-Wis.), a pro-trade Ways and Means member and the chairman of the New Democrat Coalition, were not even asked.
The situation is the latest example of the administration’s struggles to corral Democrats who are “driven to distraction” by many of his policies, said Norm Ornstein, a political scientist and resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.
“He has been embarrassed by members of his own party in a number of votes in the House, including most recently some votes on Obamacare, where dozens of Democrats defected,” Ornstein said.
“The most significant thing that the president needs to do in this case is to convince enough of his Democrats in a party that is growing less pro-trade, but also with a real challenge that always occurs for a second-term president, which is that your own base really begins to get unhappy and pushes back,” Ornstein said.
Another Democratic complaint is that the negotiations on one of the trade deals that the bill is designed to advance, the 12-country Trans-Pacific Partnership, are already too far along for lawmakers to play a meaningful role in their outcome. Five influential Senate Democrats told U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman that they won’t support the trade promotion authority bill without assurances that Congress can hold U.S. trade negotiators “more accountable” during the talks, rather than after a deal is finished and lawmakers can only cast up-or-down votes.
To the likely next Senate Finance Committee chairman, Ron Wyden of Oregon, whose support will be critical for the bill’s passage, the letter from his five colleagues is evidence of “broad frustration” over the administration’s “lack of consultation and information-sharing with the Congress and the public,” he told POLITICO in an emailed statement.
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Hill Democrats MIA on Obama's trade agenda
Democrats have used pro-trade votes to blast GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney and House Republicans in Rust Belt states and elsewhere as supporters of outsourcing, and the chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, Rep. Steve Israel of New York, has said he is skeptical about trade promotion authority.
Froman stressed that the bill’s introduction is just a first step, and its shape could change in the weeks ahead.
“We understand that this is a process where a number of people want to have input, and we’re listening,” Froman said. “We want to see a bill that has as broad bipartisan support as possible.”
Given Obama’s political problems within his own party, House Republicans are insisting that Democrats deliver at least 50 votes in support of the bill, including at least one from the party’s leadership, before they’ll bring it to the floor, a GOP leadership aide said.
As part of the White House’s effort to lobby the left, chief of staff Denis McDonough will meet with the 53-member New Democrat Coalition on Wednesday, while congressional sources said Froman has been a fixture at Hill meetings on the trade bill, focusing especially on moderate House Democrats.
It’s not clear how the administration might try to woo Democratic support, however. The White House could go along with congressional Democrats’ demands that the bill be packaged with Trade Adjustment Assistance, a program that provides benefits to workers displaced by globalization. Or it could push to include strong provisions to crack down on currency manipulation or improve environmental standards — key issues for Democrats. And members of both parties want more consultation with trade negotiators before deals are finalized.
“I think there was always an intention on the parts of the drafters that this would become a bigger trade bill,” said Scott Miller, the former global trade policy director for Procter & Gamble who is now a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “There are a number of other measures that are often included in TPA, like trade adjustment assistance. There are also a number of other matters that are waiting for a bigger vehicle, like [Generalized System of Preferences] renewal,” referring to tariff-free treatment for certain imports from developing countries.
For now, House leaders have not taken a strong stance on the legislation. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) brought the bill up at a caucus meeting last week, sources said; while she didn’t endorse the bill, she did urge the caucus to hold its fire. Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer of Maryland suggested at the gathering that the measure might fit in the party’s “Make it in America” agenda for boosting manufacturing.
On the Senate side, Majority Leader Harry Reid refused on Tuesday to commit to bringing the bill to the floor even if the Finance Committee reports it out.
“There’s a lot of controversy on that, and I’m going to see how that plays out with my caucus and with the Senate,” the Nevada Democrat said at a news conference after his party’s weekly caucus lunch.
Whatever path the White House pursues, every concession to the left will drain support from the right, where conservative groups like Heritage Action and Club for Growth oppose add-ons that Democrats favor and GOP presidential hopefuls are looking for any chance to hammer liberal policies going into 2016.
“This thing will have a lot of twists and turns,” Miller said. “It’s very difficult to forecast at this point.”
Doug Palmer contributed to this report.
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