Senior House Democrat Says Obama's Trade Deal Has a 'Good Chance'

WASHINGTON, DC - FEBRUARY 10: U.S. Rep. Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-IL) speaks during a briefing on "Rising Inequality and Its Impact on Social Security" February 10, 2015 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. The Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR) held the briefing to discuss social security.

Photographer: Alex Wong

A senior congressional Democrat said there is a “good chance” President Barack Obama’s trade legislation will be passed by the U.S. House, yet she also insisted that isn’t a sure thing given strong Democratic opposition.

“No, I don’t think it is a fait accompli,” said Representative Jan Schakowsky of Illinois, who as a chief deputy whip is one of the Democrats’ top vote counters in the House of Representatives. In a meeting with Bloomberg reporters and editors Friday, she said Obama is now emphasizing to fellow Democrats that “this is personal for him.”

Schakowsky, one of Obama’s earliest political supporters, is among those who oppose giving the president fast-track trade authority, a tool he wants to expedite approval of trade agreements, including the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership.

The Senate Thursday voted to advance the fast-track legislation and lawmakers there will begin considering amendments next week. The House will take up the measure after the Senate completes it. A one-week Memorial Day recess may mean the House doesn’t consider it until June.

Schakowsky said any impartial vote count for the trade measure right now among the 433 current House members would show little clarity. There are 245 Republicans and 188 Democrats in the chamber, and if all vote, 217 is the magic number for passage.

In this fight, Obama has more allies among Speaker John Boehner and the Republican conference in the House.

Democratic Votes

“I don’t know,” Schakowsky said on whether the trade legislation will pass the House. “I think it probably has a good chance if you look at the number of Republicans likely to vote for it. It may not need too many Democrats.”

Still, Schakowsky said she is working with Democratic colleagues, including Representative Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut, “to try to keep the number low” of Democrats who will support the fast-track measure. She put that tally so far at 12, though there are others weighing voting for it.

Schakowsky said her opposition to the package runs along several lines, and “there are just so many flaws to this agreement.”

Schakowsky said her concerns include the measure’s duration of six years and that it would give presidential administrations’ leeway to enter trade pacts with only limited congressional input. She also listed more detailed worries over how the Trans-Pacific pact would address food safety, intellectual property rights and dispute resolution.

‘Ordinary Workers’

The secrecy surrounding much of what is being negotiated, she said, has heightened a perception among some Democrats that “people are not necessarily representing the interests of ordinary workers.”

Still, she said, the Obama administration continues to push hard for the measure. “There’s no question that we are hearing from them,” she said of Obama’s Cabinet members, including in classified briefings that House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat, has set up. Schakowsky said those have often led to “more questions than answers.”

As for Obama, Schakowsky said the president is working the phones aggressively, and has held several White House meetings about the measure with groups of Democrats.

“I honestly don’t get it. I don’t get him,” she said of Obama and trade. “He sent out a blast e-mail, or whoever did it for him, saying this is personal for him.”

Clinton E-mails

Schakowsky, who is the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s national chair for candidate services, said she isn’t worried about how Hillary Clinton’s campaign for the Democratic nomination for president in 2016 will be affected by the Republican-led inquiry into the September 2012 attacks in Benghazi, Libya.

Clinton was secretary of state when four Americans were killed in the incident. Revelations that as secretary of state she used private e-mail for work purposes, and whether she has turned over all relevant ones, have led to a new avenue of scrutiny by House Republicans.

“People are so used to attacks on Hillary Clinton from Republicans,” said Schakowsky, who is backing Clinton for the Democratic nomination.

Clinton’s greater challenge, Schakowsky said, will be distancing herself from Wall Street and the North American Free Trade Agreement passed during her husband’s presidency.

Clinton’s ’Message’

“Her message of identifying with everyday working-class America is a case she has to make and will make,” Schakowsky said. The aim should be “to convince the American people that your real focus is with everyday Americans,” she said.

In speaking about Pelosi, Schakowsky said she thinks she’ll remain the House Democratic leader as long as she wants.

She said Pelosi has been outmaneuvering Boehner on such issues as a Homeland Security funding bill, “forcing him to rely on Democratic votes to get things done.”

“I think Nancy Pelosi is riding really high right now -- and is able to count votes like I’ve never seen and persuade people. And it’s not just her fundraising ability, she’s for sure a compelling leader,” Schakowsky said.

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