The Obama administration believed it had the votes necessary to pass the most-contentious piece of its trade legislation—Trade Promotion Authority—that would allow the president to finalize agreements with Pacific Rim nations and the European Union. But the labor movement was not prepared to give up. Instead, it caught the administration off guard by launching a surprise attack on legislation known as Trade Adjustment Assistance, a program designed to help workers displaced by trade and one which Democrats—and organized labor—have overwhelmingly supported in the past. Just 40 House Democrats—less than one-quarter of the caucus—voted for the bill, which fell in a landslide, 302-126. By defeating the aid measure, the labor movement rendered the administration’s careful work rounding up votes for Trade Promotion Authority largely irrelevant.
Trade Promotion Authority and Trade Adjustment Assistance—TPA and TAA in Beltway acronym-speak—have always been a package deal in Congress. Republicans support TPA because it leads to new trade agreements, while Democrats accept TAA as a consolation prize, because it mitigates the effect of outsourcing. (Although there are questions about how effective that assistance really is.) Yet once it became clear that Obama had secured enough Democratic votes to join most Republicans in passing TPA, the AFL-CIO took the astonishing step of announcing it would urge its progressive allies to oppose TAA as well. Because Republicans typically oppose the assistance piece of the trade package, the loss of Democratic support doomed the bill, and with it, the entire trade measure.
Democrats revolted even after their leader, Nancy Pelosi, negotiated a last-minute change to the proposals removing cuts to Medicare that would have paid for the assistance portion. And they rejected the most aggressive personal lobbying campaign that Obama has undertaken since the passage of his healthcare law five years ago. The White House has been wooing Democrats for weeks, even dangling the trappings of the presidency—Oval Office visits, rides on Air Force One, phone calls galore—in a way that’s been rare for Obama. (The D.C. pundit class has long urged him to engage in this sort of maneuvering to advance his legislative agenda; it doesn’t seem to have made much difference.) On Thursday evening, Obama made a surprise visit to the Congressional Baseball Game, where he smiled for pictures with lawmakers and reportedly button-holed Pelosi for 15 minutes on the trade bill. By Friday morning, he was back on Capitol Hill for a last-minute meeting with House Democrats just hours before the vote.