Obama Courts House Democrats on Trade as Skepticism Persists

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President Barack Obama is lobbying Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives to support legislation crucial to a far-reaching trade pact, after their leader said the White House hasn’t yet allayed their concerns.

Obama met with members of the pro-business New Democrat Coalition Thursday at the White House, a day after having lunch with House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, who said he must do more to swing Democrats behind legislation that would fast-track the 12-nation Asia-Pacific trade deal.

“I don’t think enough of our issues have been resolved for us to be having a big movement of votes toward the bill,” Pelosi told reporters Thursday at the Capitol.

White House aides are counting votes and attempting to build a coalition mostly of Republicans and a few Democrats to back the legislation, which is needed before Obama can finish negotiations with other Pacific Rim nations. Obama says the deal, called the Trans-Pacific Partnership, is one of his top priorities for his second term.

The White House Council of Economic Advisers on Friday released a report detailing what it described as the economic benefits of trade. Trade agreements would decrease overseas barriers to U.S. exports and provide goods to U.S. consumers at lower prices, according to the report.

About 40 members of the New Democrat Coalition, a group of House Democrats that describe themselves as “pro-growth,” were invited to meet with Obama, with trade at the top of the agenda. Next week, Obama will travel to Portland, Oregon, and visit the headquarters of Nike Inc. to promote the Asia-Pacific deal in the home state of the top Democrat on the Senate Finance committee, Ron Wyden.

Legislation’s Progress

Wyden co-sponsored the Senate’s trade promotion authority legislation, known as fast-track, with Utah Republican Senator Orrin Hatch. Hatch, the Finance Committee chairman, has said he expects the fast-track bill will be considered by the full Senate later this month.

After that, it will be up to the House to act. Although Republicans have a majority, some Democratic votes will be needed to move the bill through.

Keeping Pelosi, who has firm control over her caucus, from outright opposition to the bill is crucial to the administration’s efforts.

White House press secretary Josh Earnest said Thursday that he wasn’t aware of specific accommodations that Pelosi had requested that could win Democratic support for the trade authority legislation, but did not rule out the possibility.

Seeking Feedback

“The reason that we’re actively engaged in having a conversation with them is to both make the case to them about why we believe they and other Democrats should be supportive of trade promotion authority, but also to hear from them their reaction to the proposal and where possible, to incorporate their feedback,” Earnest said.

While White House officials painted an optimistic picture of the bill’s prospects, noting that a majority of Democrats on the Senate Finance Committee backed the legislation, Earnest acknowledged that it faces a tough path.

Only about a dozen of the Democrats in the New Democrat Coalition signed a letter in support of the fast-track bill.

“The president needs to step up his game in terms of garnering more support amongst Democrats, especially here in the House,” Republican House Speaker John Boehner told reporters Thursday.

Obama’s Lobbying

Pelosi said Obama has done “a very good job” of making the case for trade promotion authority. The president still has a way to go to convince Democrats that their concerns are being met on the larger trade pact, she said.

Opponents, including Pelosi, cite the experience of the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement with Canada and Mexico, contending it benefited companies more than workers by accelerating a shift of manufacturing outside of the U.S.

Obama, who said during his first presidential campaign that he would seek to renegotiate NAFTA, has made the argument recently that the new Asia-Pacific deal would do just that. Canada and Mexico are among the 12 nations negotiating the accord. Obama told a gathering of party activists last week that the pact “fixes a lot that was wrong with NAFTA when it was passed back in the ‘90s.’’

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