Despite pleas for support from U.S. President Barack Obama, the House failed to pass a crucial piece of the White House’s trade agenda Friday. House Democrats voted to kill the Trade Adjustment Assistance program, which would grant aid to trade workers, by a resounding 126-302 vote. The failure of the Trade Adjustment Assistance legislation took down Trade Promotion Authority, also known as fast track, which is widely viewed as essential to Obama's goal of a free trade deal in the Pacific Basin.
It was a shocking defeat for Obama, with Democrats overwhelmingly voting against the package of legislation despite pleas from the president for support. Trade Adjustment Assistance legislation is traditionally backed by Democrats, but its failure Friday was perhaps the easiest way to halt fast track authority. That authority would restrict lawmakers from amending any proposed trade agreement; instead, they would simply vote for or against any such proposal. Democrats are largely against fast track, and voting against the program to grant assistance to workers displaced by trade meant that the tied-in Trade Promotion Authority vote was rendered largely meaningless.
A stunning majority of Democrats voted against Obama’s trade agenda, despite the president showing up last minute Friday morning to make an impassioned pitch to Democrats to support the bill. The attempt to garner votes -- a rare move -- proved unsuccessful. “I don't think you ever nail anything down around here. It's always moving,” he told reporters after his talk with Democrats via The Hill.
Minority leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., spoke out strongly against the trade legislation on the House floor, saying she would vote against Trade Adjustment Assistance if it meant bringing down fast track. "We have an opportunity to slow down,” Pelosi said, according to Politico. “Whatever the deal is with other countries, we want a better deal for America’s workers.”
Trade Adjustment Assistance received just 40 Democrat backers while 144 voted against it. On the Republican side, 58 voted "no" while 86 voted "yes," according to The Hill. The Trade Promotion Authority -- or fast track -- would later pass 219-211 in a vote that was somewhat of a surprise, since it was largely inconsequential. However, Friday’s vote does not completely kill Trade Adjustment Authority; it could be up for another vote as early as next week. “We're going to continue to make an aggressive case for defeated Trade Adjustment Assistance legislation,” White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said.
Trade Promotion Authority would have given Obama increased flexibility to negotiate trade deals, including the soon-to-be-struck Trans-Pacific Partnerships. With fast track, after Obama strikes a final deal, Congress would have have a limited ability to block the agreement and could not amend it. The Trans-Pacific Partnerships would have guaranteed an up-or-down vote and the Senate's inability to filibuster it.
Much of the Democratic opposition was focused on the Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP, which is a free trade deal currently being negotiated by the U.S. and 11 other nations, including Vietnam, Japan, Chile and Australia. Democrats argue the deal would undermine American workers and ultimately cost more than it would accomplish. They also said a trade deal wouldn’t sufficiently address currency manipulation, worker mistreatment or climate change regulations.
Democrats were also concerned because the Trade Promotion Authority would apply to more than just the current deal being negotiated. The authorization would also apply to any trade deal inked in the next three years, with the option to extend an additional three years without risk of being filibustered by the Senate. That means if Republicans win the White House and maintain control of Congress, there will be no options for Democrats to block new trade deals.