WASHINGTON — Last Friday’s vote on a huge trade package, which has divided Washington for months, was as dramatic as they come. Last-minute defections, confusion on the floor, an eleventh-hour visit from President Obama — this one had it all. If it isn’t clear to you what happened, you’re not alone: staffers, journalists, and even lawmakers were thrown by the turn of events.
So what happened, exactly? On Friday afternoon, the House considered the Trade Act of 2015, which included Trade Promotion Authority — the “fast-track authority” that would pave the way for the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership — and Trade Adjustment Assistance, a federal program intended to aid workers who lost their jobs because of free trade. President Obama and GOP leadership were most concerned about corralling enough votes for TPA, and focused their efforts on pushing the handful of Democrats on the fence to vote yes. Obama, in an extremely rare move, went up to the Capitol on Friday morning and gave an emotional speech to persuade the Democratic caucus to pass the trade package.
Quickly, however, the stumbling block became TAA. Though TPA and TAA are part of the same bill, leadership chose to put each to a separate vote, though one could not pass without the other. The logic here was to divide and conquer: leadership believed that most Republican lawmakers would vote against TAA, a program the GOP considers glorified welfare. They bet that Democrats would be reluctant to vote down the reauthorization of TAA — which some claimed would be hard to bring back — even though Democrats might oppose TPA. On the other side, they knew most Republicans would support TPA — enough to push it through, even if the majority of Democrats voted no.
Progressive leaders in the Democratic Party, like 5th District Rep. Keith Ellison, pushed the caucus to vote against TAA, believing that killing it would stop the entire trade package. (Indeed, that’s exactly what Obama came to the Capitol to tell Democrats not to do.) Before the vote, Ellison dismissed arguments that failing to reauthorize TAA now would effectively kill the program forever. He also expressed his displeasure with the President’s words that morning, particularly his plea for House Democrats to “play it straight” on trade. “When he says play it straight, we are,” Ellison said. “He cares about TAA but he’s using it as a bargaining chip to get what he really wants, which is [TPA]. Is that playing it straight?”
Before the vote, the big question became whether Democratic Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, a longtime Obama ally but a reliable liberal, would fall in line with the President or buck him. But in a floor speech, she opted for the latter, urging her members to vote down the package. It was the first blow in what had become a stinging defeat for Obama: when voting on TAA ended, 302 Republicans and Democrats had joined to vote down TAA. Each Minnesota Democrat — including long-undecided 7th District Rep. Collin Peterson — voted no. The three Republicans voted yes.
Many Democrats had been told that defeating TAA would effectively kill the trade package — but Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy called a vote on the TPA bill, surprising onlookers and even some lawmakers. The procedure was mostly symbolic, but TPA passed, 219 to 211. (Minnesota members voted the same on TPA as TAA.) The passage of TPA gave House leadership room to make a motion to reconsider TAA, essentially giving Obama and the pro-TPA coalition a long weekend to somehow flip the 70 or so Democratic lawmakers who voted against TAA. There is some disagreement as to whether or not those efforts will make any difference.
Democratic aides were skeptical that anything would change over the weekend. As a Democrat, the cost of flipping your vote would be too high, according to one aide. And he doubted what Obama or GOP leadership could offer to Democrats that they wouldn’t have offered on Friday. “If they were going to swoop in and save the day, they would have done it,” he said.
Another aide noted, however, that some Democrats now realize that killing TAA won’t kill TPA — and Obama is hoping some will flip their votes to avoid the potential albatross of having voted down TAA. In theory, the House could vote down TAA and pass TPA, but that would require a Senate-House conference committee, where many believe the bill would stall.
Republicans remain optimistic that a deal will be reached. On Monday, 3rd District Rep. Erik Paulsen said he was surprised at what he called the “disparity” of the TAA vote. But he emphasized that the President will have to move the needle with members of his own party. “Central to the pitch, from the president’s point of view, is that the world is looking to the US for leadership,” Paulsen said. “If he leans into that message, he’ll be able to sell it among his own folks.”
6th District Rep. Tom Emmer acknowledged some conversations may take place to persuade members of the GOP caucus to support TAA. (158 Republicans voted against it.) “What I deal with, mostly, is that if the President wants it, it must be bad,” Emmer said. Referencing a conservative framing of TPA, he said, “We’re not talking about ObamaTrade here, we’re talking about American trade.” Ultimately, Emmer echoed Paulsen’s sentiment. “As far as it getting passed,” he said, “it will be up to the Democrats if they want TAA to be reauthorized.”
It is expected that the House will vote again on TAA sometime this week, though it’s unclear exactly when. A Tuesday vote has been widely reported, though it’s possible that House leadership could set up a vote for Wednesday, or later in the week.