How One House Democrat Helped Save Trade for Obama
At midday Thursday, there was a gathering in Majority Whip Steve Scalise’s members’ lounge off Statuary Hall to toast House passage of Trade Adjustment Assistance, the last piece of a legislative package giving Trade Promotion Authority to President Barack Obama.
But among the select group of lawmakers and aides from both parties, there was one notable absence: The House Democrat who helped win for Obama the ability to negotiate a 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership.
Rep. Ron Kind, chairman of the moderate New Democrat Coalition, was already en route to catch a flight home to Wisconsin. A 10-term member with a no-fuss Midwestern sensibility, Kind didn’t need a party to validate his accomplishment.
Phoning CQ Roll Call from an airport terminal, Kind downplayed his role in securing 28 Democrats to cast decisive votes for TPA.
“It was all about information,” he said. “It was getting [members] the information they could use. And they really did their homework. They dived down deep on the issues to try to understand what it was all about.”
It’s true Ways and Means Chairman Paul D. Ryan, R-Wis., will get most of the credit for lining up all the Republicans who came over to the “yes” side on TPA. And Kind himself, relying on lots of seasoned staffers and other committed Democrats to pull off a heavy lift, wasn’t working in a vacuum.
But members and aides who fought in the trenches for and against the trade deal painted a picture for CQ Roll Call of just how integral Kind was to delivering Obama the top legislative priority of his second term — a challenge compounded by a rare lack of engagement from leadership.
Though the national media spotlight only started shining on trade at the start of the 114th Congress, the battle was brewing a year and a half ago, at least. Kind, a veteran supporter of trade deals, started bringing in influential stakeholders as guests to weekly New Democrat Coalition policy lunches, where members got an early education in the emerging framework.
These meetings were taking place months before the administration began holding Democratic Caucus-wide question-and-answer sessions and briefings, many of which were facilitated by leaders such as Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi who “hoped to get to ‘yes’” (she ultimately went with “no”).
“We had every administration official, every Cabinet official,” Kind said of those early meetings. “There were opportunities for our members to be engaged, educated, ask questions, but also to provide the administration guidance on what they’d like to see in a TPA bill and ultimately a TPP agreement.”
He told CQ Roll Call he couldn’t remember who reached out to whom first, but there was an understanding early on with the administration that the members of the coalition represented the core group of potential trade allies (ultimately, 20 of the 28 Democrats who voted for TPA hailed from the group).
On the Republican side, leaders wanted to pass TPA, and empowered Ryan to make it happen. But after the GOP took over the Senate in November, opposition to the deal began to pick up steam in the president’s own party. Democratic leaders made it clear they wouldn’t be making their own positions known until the last possible moment, and would treat the vote as a “conscience vote,” meaning they would never formally whip.
So early this year, Kind started his own whip operation.
Along with other New Democrat Coalition leaders and the group’s executive director, J.D. Grom, Kind worked to identify a set of roughly 70 members who, in the words of one aide, “would be open to voting for TPA.” Those members included New Democrats, supporters of previous trade deals and newer members who would be casting a trade vote for the very first time.
Kind said he tried to sway colleagues by giving them facts and inviting them to small briefings where they could ask questions and get answers with U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman and others. He also helped ease members through the process: “I told them things were gonna get rough, and local politics were going to be difficult for them, but it was important to keep their powder dry, to not make any decisions until they had facts.”
Kind soon became a point person for the administration, which was looking to identify Democrats to court, and for Republican leaders, who needed to know how many of their own members they had to bring on board.
Kind and Scalise frequently discussed how each side’s vote count was going. When 34 House Republicans revolted against the rule to bring the trade bills to the floor earlier this month, Scalise asked Kind to help convince enough Democrats to make up the shortfall.
Jeff Zients, a senior Obama adviser in charge of the White House trade “war room,” called every day. David Simas, another top presidential aide, and White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough checked in with the Wisconsin Democrat on a regular basis, too. Sometimes the phone rang and it was Obama himself.
About two weeks before the House was scheduled to vote, Kind and his team had roughly 20 members committed to voting “yes” — enough to get TPA over the finish line with the help of the majority of Republicans.
But there was a problem with the original proposed offset to TAA, which drew from sequester cuts to Medicare. The worker aid bill, which most Republicans didn’t support, had already passed the Senate with that offset. Further, they were packaged together so passage of TAA dictated whether the House could clear TPA for the president.
Kind and others had warned their counterparts across the Rotunda it was going to be a problem on their side of the Capitol, and now it was.
A few days before the trade votes were scheduled, the New Democrat Coalition got a call from the White House: Obama needed Kind and his partners to whip the entire House Democratic Caucus for TAA.
“We were not equipped for a full-scale whip operation,” said one aide involved in the efforts. “The first round we were basically handing out blank cards and telling people, ‘Talk to anyone you can find.’”
As the bills were hitting the floor on June 12, Republican leaders went to Kind to deliver a message to the package’s Democratic supporters. The Democrats gathered in the Rayburn Room right off the House floor, where Kind had spent much of the day and week making calls and holding meetings.
He told members the plan: TAA was probably going to go down, with opponents using it as a tactic to stall movement of TPA. In that event, the House would still vote on TPA, and there would be a conversation later about how to proceed.
Kind said he needed Democrats to trust him, the White House and Republicans that they would still get TAA to the president’s desk. Until then, he needed them not to walk away from TPA.
“There was such a lack of trust,” he reflected Thursday, “and it did require a leap of faith.”
In the following days, the 28 Democrats who voted for TPA met regularly with White House officials. People wondered why they were spending time preaching to the choir rather than trying to convert the masses, but the TPA crusaders knew what everyone else ultimately figured out: There was no way they were going to flip the vast majority of the House Democratic Caucus. All they could really do was keep the existing group together.
On Thursday, some members were heading to Charleston, S.C., to mourn the victims of the recent church shooting; others back to their districts for the week-long July 4 recess.
Kind said there really won’t be much of a break before House Democrats will want to start engaging with the Obama administration on TPP, the 12-nation trade pact the president now has fast-track authority to negotiate, thanks in no small part to the Wisconsin Democrat.
“We have a little bit of time,” he said, “but not a lot.”
Correction 9:18 a.m. Tuesday
A previous version of this article misspelled Jeff Zients’ last name.