Obama’s Limits on Display in House Defeat of Trade Measure

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Democrats Block Plans for a House Trade Bill Vote

President Barack Obama’s stinging loss on trade legislation threatens his second-term agenda as well as his influence in Congress in the waning months before the U.S. presidential campaign dominates political conversation.

While House lawmakers will attempt another vote next week, Friday’s rejection of a key component of a deal to give him trade promotion authority was a reminder of the limits of Obama’s power in the final months of his presidency.

He’s still counting on cooperation from Congress on other issues important to his legacy, including a nuclear deal with Iran and greater federal spending for priorities like biomedical research and infrastructure.

“The curtain comes down a little bit faster and everything is a little harder,” said Patrick Griffin, who was a chief lobbyist for former President Bill Clinton.

The rebuke on trade was delivered by Obama’s own party members, who ignored his personal pleas during a rare and impromptu trip to the Capitol on Friday to make his case.

That visit showed how much Obama had personally staked on the vote. It was the first time in almost a year that Obama sought out lawmakers on their home turf to lobby on a substantive issue. The night before, he made a hastily-arranged appearance at the annual congressional baseball game at Nationals Park in Washington on Thursday night toting a case of White House beer for the winning team -- in this case Democrats.

Not Enough

For some lawmakers, who’ve long complained that the president has shunned the personal and social outreach of some predecessors, the charm offensive was too little, too late.

The appearance at the Capitol only angered some Democrats. The president didn’t take questions in a closed-door meeting and waited until the 11th hour to ask for their votes.

“Now the president wants to talk?” Representative Keith Ellison, a Democrat from Minnesota, said on Twitter.

House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, who had mostly stayed on the sidelines early in the debate at the behest of the White House, praised Obama for his accessibility before announcing that she wouldn’t back the legislation.

“If anyone could have changed our minds,” it’s the president, Representative Brad Sherman, a Democrat for California, said. But, he added, “A majority of our caucus does not agree with him on this issue.”

Republican Votes

Despite urging from their leaders, majority Republicans didn’t make up the difference for the legislation, which would provide aid for workers who lose their jobs as a result of free-trade agreements. In the end, 302 House members voted against it and only 126 in favor.

The House then quickly passed, 219-211, a bill to give Obama fast-track negotiating authority on trade deals, including a pact with 11 other Pacific Rim nations. However, that bill won’t go to his desk unless the worker-aid legislation, previously approved by the Senate, also passes. Another vote on worker aid may come as soon as June 16.

Obama chose to emphasize the second vote in a statement issued Friday afternoon, saying lawmakers “came together on behalf of America’s workers, our businesses, and our economy.”

“I urge the House to pass TAA without delay so that more middle-class workers can earn the chance to participate and succeed in our global economy,” Obama said.

‘Procedural Snafu’

White House press secretary Josh Earnest dismissed the defeat of the trade assistance measure as a “procedural snafu.” He said the 28 Democratic votes for fast-track negotiating authority “significantly” exceeded expectations.

“The fact is, the hard part has gotten done,” Earnest said.

Griffin said Obama may still pull out a victory. Because of the importance of the measure, the White House and Republican allies who support the trade legislation may regroup and find another way to win passage.

“Things this big don’t just go up in smoke,” Griffin, now an adjunct government professor at American University in Washington, said in a phone interview.

William Galston, Clinton’s former chief domestic policy adviser, called the defeat “a significant setback” that may “diminish his credibility on other fronts” such as winning support for a deal with Iran to stop it from developing a nuclear weapon.

Pending Issues

“It would represent a failure to mobilize a significant cadre of Democrats to stick with the president,” Galston, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said in a phone interview shortly before the vote. “Right now, with so many important issues pending, the president is still seen as a central actor and not a lame duck.”

The support Obama secured from Republicans for his trade agenda isn’t likely to transfer to other issues. The president and congressional Republicans remain far apart on most major issues and Obama’s executive actions on immigration and other issues have further inflamed his opponents.

Republicans have attacked Obama’s policies in their legislative agenda, provoking at least 35 veto threats from the White House so far this year. Obama already has vetoed two measures that passed Congress.

The trade pact with Pacific nations, called the Trans-Pacific Partnership, is not only a key piece of Obama’s economic agenda but also critical to the Obama administration’s effort to move Asia to the forefront of the U.S. international strategy.

“It is the non-diplomatic cornerstone of the pivot to Asia, a phrase that will now ring hollow to many in the region,” Galston said.

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