Dinner, Data Part of Obama’s Courting of Democrats on Trade

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By the time Air Force One touched down in Oregon before a pro-trade pep rally at Nike Inc., Representative Suzanne Bonamici already had gotten the full Barack Obama treatment.

The courtship included a hard-to-get invitation to a state dinner at the White House, extensive briefings from top administration officials, as well as lobbying by local businesses.

It worked. The Democrat from Beaverton, the location of Nike’s headquarters, said this week that after being undecided for months, she’ll vote for legislation expanding the president’s power to cut trade deals.

“We’re frequently asked to vote on things that aren’t aligned with our background,” Bonamici said in an interview. “That’s why I do my research.”

Obama is scratching for every Democratic vote he can get to push the trade bill through Congress. Even after weeks of meetings, telephone calls and personal appeals, many of his fiercest opponents are within his own party and he’s still shy of the backing needed to assure passage.

Trade Campaign

Obama has shown little aptitude and less regard for the personal lobbying and arm-twisting that other presidents have used to advance their priorities in Congress. Yet his campaign for the trade authority -- which will get a procedural vote in the Senate next week -- is showing progress.

The event at Nike headquarters in suburban Portland, a Democratic stronghold, gave Obama a chance again to argue his case for the trade legislation and a proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement with 11 other countries.

He got back-up from the company, which announced Friday it would accelerate plans to bolster U.S. manufacturing if fast-track and the trade accord go through. That would add as many as 10,000 U.S. jobs, according to the company.

Nike Chief Executive Officer Mark Parker said his company is proof that trade works.

“Trade has a powerful ripple effect,” he said in introducing the president. “It drives our future growth.”

Obama also is showing willingness to get tough with his Democratic opponents, including Senate minority leader Harry Reid and Senator Elizabeth Warren, the Massachusetts Democrat who commands a loyal following in the party’s liberal wing.

Opponents ‘Wrong’

“On trade, some of my dearest friends are wrong,” Obama said at Nike, calling the trade debate “a question of the past versus the future.”

The dissent was evident in Oregon. Protesters against the Pacific deal greeted Obama when he arrived at a party fundraiser last night in Portland. The group planned protests Friday at Nike and Bonamici’s office.

Representative Ami Bera, a California Democrat, said Obama’s style of making the argument, consistently and publicly, worked for him. He said this week he’ll vote for the trade negotiating authority known as fast track when it comes up in the House as soon as next month.

“He’s more prone to laying out the facts,” Bera said. “He’s not a strong-arm type of guy.”

Even some of Obama’s fiercest critics acknowledge that the administration’s campaign on trade differs from past efforts.

McConnell’s Praise

“At the risk of having some of you literally faint,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told reporters Tuesday, “I want to compliment the president for the way he’s handling the trade issue.”

The administration’s war room for trade, run out of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building next to the White House, has put undecided Democrats through a gauntlet of briefings by cabinet members, and ensured they hear from the business coalition pushing the legislation.

While Republicans have generally supported trade bills, many Democrats felt stung by the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement, which they and their allies in labor unions blame for a decline in U.S. manufacturing jobs.

In the Senate, where Republicans hold 54 of 100 seats, enough Democrats are on board to pass the trade authority legislation. Victory is less certain in the House.

Oklahoma Representative Tom Cole, a member of the Republican leadership team, said in late April that about 180 to 200 House Republicans were ready to support the bill. He said as many as 30 Democrats may be needed to get a majority. Only about 16 have publicly declared they’ll vote yes.

Courting Congress

One of Obama’s successes so far has been keeping House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of California out of the fight. Pelosi, who keeps a tight rein on her caucus, got an invitation from Obama for a one-on-one lunch last week at the White House as part of a bid to head off her outright opposition.

Though Pelosi voted for NAFTA, she has opposed other trade deals and voted no on fast track the last time it came up. At Pelosi’s urging, the administration in March made available to lawmakers the working text of the Pacific trade deal, which is otherwise kept under wraps.

The administration, Bera said, “has been responsive.”

Potential Vote

The White House viewed Bonamici, 60, as a potential vote for some time, but the former state legislator made clear that the administration needed credible answers to criticisms from opponents, notably labor unions, many of whom had endorsed her.

Bonamici met with U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman to hear his case. Froman’s staff walked her through the still-confidential labor policy sections of the Pacific trade deal, she said.

“What I saw more than a year ago was going in the right direction,” Bonamici said. “What I want to see is what the final provisions are.”

The White House didn’t neglect the perks of power. Bonamici, who took office after a special election in January 2012, attended a state dinner honoring Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on April 28, one of 13 lawmakers to get the honor, and the most junior member of the House.

Obama didn’t lean on her over dessert, though. “We went through the line and I shook his hand and said, ‘Nice to see you, Mr. President,’” Bonamici said.

Business Lobbying

In the meantime, a group of companies centered around the Portland Business Alliance, a local booster group that is part of the national lobbying effort by business, showcased Oregon’s interest in international trade. The state exported $28 billion in goods and services in 2013, including computer chips, fertilizer, wine and blueberries, according to the Business Roundtable, the Washington-based group heading the national effort.

Last week, a delegation of 45 executives representing a mix of businesses visited Bonamici and other Oregon lawmakers in Washington. It included officials from the Port of Portland, local utilities, manufacturers and forestry companies.

This week, Bonamici posted a lengthy statement on her website that gave a nod to the point they made: 6,000 Oregon companies exported everything from “computer chips to potato chips” last year.

But she also warned Obama didn’t have her vote in the bag for the Pacific trade agreement, which the administration hopes to submit to Congress this year. Bera, too, said he isn’t a given to vote for the pact.

“In the coming days and weeks, I will continue to emphasize to the president and to the administration that, to earn my vote, any trade agreement must be a good deal for American workers,” Bonamici wrote.

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