President Barack Obama’s top aide called Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to complain hours after Reid publicly opposed Obama’s push for Congress to speed approval of trade deals, two Senate Democratic aides said.
White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough telephoned Reid to say he was unhappy that the majority leader publicly went against the White House, particularly on the day after the president’s State of the Union address Jan. 28, said the aides, who spoke on condition of anonymity to describe a private call.
The call demonstrates the White House’s sensitivity to a rare rift between Reid, a Nevada Democrat, and Obama on a policy matter central to Obama’s agenda.
Reid said on Jan. 29 that when it comes to fast-track trade approval, “everyone would be well-advised just to not push this right now.” Reid voted against fast-track authority renewal in 2002, the last time it moved through Congress.
On the call with McDonough, Reid said his opposition to going ahead with fast-track trade authority wouldn’t change, one of the aides said. The majority leader’s staff had informed Obama’s aides of Reid’s opposition ahead of the State of the Union speech, this aide said.
A White House official declined to comment and referred to a statement from press secretary Jay Carney during yesterday’s briefing.
“We’ve been pretty explicit about the fact that Senator Reid’s expression of his views on this matter should not have come as a surprise to anyone familiar with his views,” Carney told reporters at the daily press briefing. “And the president’s position is that we ought to press forward on reaching the kinds of trade agreements that can expand our exports and create jobs here in the United States that pay better than your average job.”
Reid, who met with Obama at the White House yesterday, voted against free-trade agreements with South Korea, Colombia and Panama in 2011. The trade dispute didn’t come up at yesterday’s meeting, said one of the aides.
The fast-track measure, which is a top goal of exporters, would allow passage of trade deals in Congress without amendments. The U.S. is working to complete agreements with the European Union and Pacific nations.
The trade portion of Obama’s State of the Union speech was one of the few elements that won wide praise from Republican lawmakers.
Most Senate Republicans “are free traders, anxious to have trade agreements,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell told reporters today.
“This administration has largely been out of the trade business for five years,” the Kentucky Republican said. “It’s time to get in it. If the president means what he says, I wonder why there were reports that the issue of Senator Reid’s position on trade apparently never came up yesterday at the White House meeting.”
Renewed trade authority poses a political dilemma for Reid and other Democratic leaders as the party seeks to make income inequality an issue in the November congressional elections. Many Democrats oppose renewing the authority because they say the trade deals may hurt U.S. workers.
McDonough, appearing Feb. 2 on CBS’s “Face the Nation,” was asked about Reid’s trade comments and said the majority leader “has been a great friend of the president’s.”
“We’ll continue to work on this,” McDonough said Feb. 2. “His position on trade has been clear from the beginning.”
Yesterday’s White House discussion, which included Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee chairman Michael Bennet and the group’s executive director Guy Cecil, was focused on electoral politics including November’s Senate races, Bennet said.
“We had a discussion about the races, the map that we’re confronting,” the Colorado Democrat said yesterday in an interview. He added that he’s confident Obama will be an asset “in all kinds of different capacities” to Democrats’ effort to keep and expand their Senate majority.
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