The outcome was uncertain and the drama intense heading into Friday’s votes. In frantic 11th-hour maneuvering, liberals in the House defied their own president and turned against a favored program of their own that retrains workers displaced by trade. Killing the program would kill the companion trade bill, and many Democrats and labor leaders advocated just that.
The move caught the GOP off-guard. House Republicans, already in the awkward position of allying themselves with Obama, found themselves being asked by their leaders to vote for a worker retraining program that most have long opposed as wasteful.
Many were reluctant to do so, leaving the fate of the entire package up in the air, and Obama facing the prospect of a humiliating defeat at the hands of his own party members — unless he can eke out what all predict would be the narrowest of wins.
“If we have to pass something that’s a Democratic ideal with all Republicans to get the whole thing to go,” said Rep. Tom Rooney, R-Fla., “we could be in trouble.”
The main trade bill at issue would give Obama so-called “fast track” authority to negotiate trade deals that Congress could approve or reject, but not amend. He hopes to use the authority, already agreed to by the Senate, to complete a sweeping pact with 11 other Pacific Rim nations which would constitute the economic centerpiece of his second term.
Obama says such a pact with Japan, Mexico, Singapore and other nations constituting 40 percent of the global economy would open up critical new markets for American products.
Business groups like the Chamber of Commerce crave the deal; labor unions are ardently opposed, pointing to job and wage losses from earlier trade pacts opponents say never lived up to the hype from previous administrations.
Those colliding interests have produced unusual alliances on Capitol Hill, with House Republicans working to help a president they oppose on nearly every other issue, and most Democrats working against him.
Yet in a convoluted series of events Thursday, the fast-track bill, long the main event, seemed to fade in importance even as Republicans began sounding confident it would command enough votes to pass.
Instead, Democrats began eyeing the possibility of taking down the related Trade Adjustment Assistance bill — a maneuver that would be made possible only because of how House leaders decided to link the two of them in rules governing how they would come to a vote.
Republicans said that the sequencing was determined at the behest of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. Pelosi, trying to maintain leverage, has remained noncommittal on the whole issue to the end, even as she worked behind the scenes with House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, this week to solve a last-minute hang-up involving Democratic concerns about cutting Medicare funds to pay for worker retraining.
The intricate solution to the Medicare issue lay in finding another revenue source —various tax penalties — and also lining up the votes in a certain order that made passage of the fast-track bill contingent on passage of the trade adjustment bill. That created the opening for Democratic fast-track opponents to take aim at the trade adjustment measure.
“The TAA is the handmaiden to facilitate the whole deal,” said Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore. “We have the potential to stop this whole train.”
Friday’s outcome appears to depend on how many Democrats defect on the trade adjustment bill — and whether Republicans can make up their numbers. The biggest questions hanging over the House late Thursday were: How many of the 188 Democrats will vote against TAA because it’s the best way to kill fast track? And how many of the 246 Republicans might hold their noses and vote for the jobs program in a bid to save fast track?
The trade issue’s divisiveness was evident when the House voted narrowly, 217-212, on a procedure Thursday to advance the package to Friday’s expected showdown.
The White House, recognizing the precarious position the package is in, dispatched top officials to Capitol Hill Thursday to meet with Democrats, and Obama himself made a surprise appearance at Thursday night’s annual congressional baseball game.
Arriving as Democratic and Republican lawmakers faced off at Nationals Park, Obama was greeted with chants of “TPA! TPA!” from the GOP side — the acronym for the Trade Promotion Authority fast track bill.