President Barack Obama wants Congress to pass legislation that would give him the authority to negotiate a long-sought trade agreement with nearly a dozen countries in the Pacific region.
The problem is, a growing number of House Democrats don’t want to let him have it.
It could make for a potentially uncomfortable situation in which Democrats, already marginalized by the GOP-controlled Congress, can’t bring themselves to back their president.
It also could create divisions within the caucus itself, with members torn between allegiances to their party and a desire to advance policy they feel will promote a healthier global economy.
On Thursday, joined by high-ranking officials from some of the largest and most powerful unions in the country, at least 16 House Democrats gathered in a packed room in the Cannon House Office Building at a news conference-cum-pep rally. They were there to rail against so-called fast-track authority for the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which allows the administration to negotiate the terms of a trade agreement according to a specific set of parameters.
Once a formal trade agreement is hashed out using those parameters as a basis, Congress gets an up-or-down vote on the finished product — with no opportunities to offer amendments or make further revisions.
Representing a diverse spectrum of progressives and moderates, Democrats suggested they were the conscience of the Congress, aiming to protect American jobs and prevent a situation where trade deals were made with countries with little regard for labor, environmental and human rights practices.
Transportation and Infrastructure ranking member Peter A. DeFazio, D-Ore., mocked Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., for supporting a trade deal.
“He knows that this agreement is going to cost America jobs, and so therefore he’s trying to facilitate some weak-kneed Democrats to vote for it,” DeFazio said of McConnell. “What are you gonna retrain those people for? McDonald’s? If we give up all our manufacturing base and quality jobs, what are you going to retrain people for?”
Rep. Tim Ryan, R-Ohio, also piled on.
“Let me say this: The 2006, 2008, 2010, 2012 and 2014 elections were all about economics. Make no mistake,” Ryan said. “If we want, as Democrats, to connect with these voters, we need to talk about the issues that they care about, and it’s fast track, and it’s trade.
“We are duly elected,” he continued. “We are the ones on the ground when the steel mill closes. We’re the ones in the union halls, shaking hands, holding hands, hugging wives and kids that have lost their jobs.”
Democrats who have typically been inclined to support trade agreements and fast-track authority are uncomfortable with the divisions growing in the caucus and the sense that they are being cast as villains and traitors.
Rep. Jim Himes, D-Conn., called the Democratic opposition faction the “Hell No” caucus, a nod to the informal moniker reserved for the disagreeable contingent of far-right conservatives in the Republican Conference.
“It’s disturbing to see a debate that is demanding sort of absolute positions on legislation that does not yet exist,” Himes told CQ Roll Call Wednesday. “There is a camp out there that doesn’t want to hear about fast-track, not interested in what it involves, the terms … of course it’s going to be controversial.”
Himes said he had not decided how he would vote on the issue, but he is keeping an open mind and will wait to see what the terms entail with a careful eye on how environmental, labor and intellectual property issues are handled.
Rep. Gerald E. Connolly, D-Va., a vice chairman of the centrist New Democrat Coalition, said he would support a fast-track trade agreement. He worried members in his party would sink the effort.
Though more Republicans than not might be inclined to vote “yes,” a contingent of conservatives are wary of handing negotiating authority over to the executive branch, and a bipartisan coalition could be necessary to push the measure over the finish line.
“There are conflicting points of view within our caucus and a healthy debate that is healthy, and I would hope that all points of view will be respected,” Connolly said. “There isn’t just one point of view. Maybe there is a more dominant view on trade in the Democratic Caucus — there always has been.
“My position is, you need to separate the authority from the actual trade agreement,” he continued. “Isn’t this president entitled to the same authority as all his predecessors have had in living memory? My position is yes.”
At a separate event off-campus on Thursday morning, House Ways and Means Subcommittee on Trade Chairman Pat Tiberi, R-Ohio, reported on reasons to be optimistic. “That TPP agreement is within grasp,” he said, though didn’t offer any timetable.
In a statement, a spokesman for the U.S. Trade Representative was also undeterred: “Our trade agenda is about supporting jobs through expanding Made in America exports. TPP will be the most progressive trade agreement in history, breaking new ground on labor and environmental protections. We are going to be making that case to Congress and the American people.”
Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., considered the liberal champion at the highest party ranks, has not tipped her hand as to whether she would help or walk away from the president on trade.
“Obviously we want to see what the negotiation is on trade. You know how complicated that issue is,” she said at her weekly news conference on Thursday, which coincided with the start of the media event in Cannon. “Let’s see what they’re proposing. I’m not at that press conference, I don’t know what they’re saying.”
She also implied she wasn’t caught up with where the majority of her caucus stood on the issue.
“I don’t know that most people in our caucus have made up their minds — many have, yeah, but what they have made up their minds to is that they want to see transparency, they want to see consultation, they want to see fairness, they want to see what this means to the American paycheck,” Pelosi said. “But we are not opposed to trade. John F. Kennedy proclaimed us a party of trade. I’m raised in a city of trade, clipper ships in Baltimore, Maryland; San Francisco — a big trade city. We all know that we live in a global economy. We also have to know about — whatever we are doing — we have to make a judgment as to how it affects the American worker. And I think the administration has been engaged in some good discussion with our members on that score.”
House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer, D-Md., who is more moderate than Pelosi and seen by some as more amenable to trade deals, is also a wild card at this point as to which contingent he’ll align with should legislation providing fast-track authority make its way to the floor.
“It is controversial, and it’s controversial mainly because there is a real fear in our party that unless you have vigorous enforcement and labor rights and environment rights included within trade agreements, that we are put in an unfair competitive situation with our trading partners,” Hoyer said at his weekly reporters’ briefing on Tuesday.
Clark Mindock and Bridget Bowman contributed to this report.