President Obama probably knew his trade agenda was going down in flames hours before the first votes were even cast in the House on Friday afternoon.
That morning, Obama made a rare visit to the Capitol to try to salvage legislation he needed to complete a major 12-nation Pacific trade deal. It was there, in the second-floor office of one of his closest allies in Congress, that he got the bad news.
Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) told the president she was “leaning no” on a workers-aid bill — the linchpin to a broader package granting Obama so-called fast track trade authority.
Until that moment, Pelosi had kept everyone in the dark as to how she’d vote on the aid bill, known as Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA). Even Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), her longtime friend and fellow liberal leading opposition to the trade bills, didn’t learn Pelosi had joined the cause until Friday afternoon when she gave a fiery, rambling speech on the House floor.
Voting down TAA is the only way to “slow down the fast track,” the former Speaker declared.
Pelosi’s declaration wasn’t a call to arms for Democrats to vote down the workers bill — her aides insist the San Francisco Democrat didn’t whip it one way or the other given that she was torn between her president and her liberal base. Instead, it represented a recognition of the political reality: Most Democrats had already made up their mind that they wouldn’t be voting to bail out Obama, the leader of their party.
It was a stunning setback for Obama’s months-long trade push. The TAA bill was rejected in a lopsided 126-302 vote, with only 40 Democrats and 86 Republicans voting yes.
The House then narrowly passed fast-track, or Trade Promotion Authority (TPA), with support from a large number of Republicans and 28 pro-trade Democrats. But the package was structured in such as way that it couldn’t be sent to Obama’s desk without TAA as well.
House GOP leaders will put the aid bill, traditionally favored by Democrats, on the floor again possibly Tuesday, hoping Obama can flip some “no” votes to “yes” over the weekend.
White House press secretary Josh Earnest, who made the short drive to the Capitol with Obama, tried to downplay Friday’s defeat as simply “another procedural snafu.” But it’s unlikely the same bill would produce a dramatically different result next week.
The Republican whip team said it had as many as 93 GOP votes at one point during the TAA roll call, but characterized it as close to the high-water mark for the party. That means Obama would have to deliver at least 85 additional Democratic votes to get TAA through the House.
On the morning of the votes, Speaker John BoehnerJohn BoehnerBoehner endorses DeVos for Education secretary Trump, House GOP could clash over 'Buy America' Lobbying World MORE (R-Ohio) and his leadership team were desperate to run up their TAA vote tally, given signs of mass Democratic defections. And the Speaker’s office was a beehive of activity.
At 10:30 a.m. Friday, BoehnerJohn BoehnerBoehner endorses DeVos for Education secretary Trump, House GOP could clash over 'Buy America' Lobbying World MORE huddled with Republican members of his Ohio delegation, urging them to vote for the aid bill. The Speaker also met with his GOP chairmen, instructing them to start making phone calls to their committee members to build support. Ways and Means Chairman Paul RyanPaul RyanWeek ahead: Trump's health pick takes the hot seat Trump criticizes controversial piece of House GOP tax plan Hispanic Dems warn Latinos will be hit hard by ObamaCare repeal MORE (R-Wis.) and members of his panel also were on the phone lobbying rank-and-file Republicans.
‘Play it straight’
Just a few floors down, in a nondescript room in the bowels of the Capitol, Obama made a direct appeal to House Democrats not to drag workers into a procedural battle.
“Play it straight,” he repeated roughly 20 times during his more than 30-minute speech. If you believe in aid for American workers, he said, don’t vote it down simply to derail fast-track.
Obama also tried to to convince Democrats he's been on their side these past seven years. Why would I bail out the auto industry early in my presidency, then promote a trade deal that harms the auto industry, Obama asked, according to Democratic sources in the room who paraphrased the president.
He also pushed back on Democratic critics unhappy with a GOP amendment that barred climate change provisions in trade deals, saying he’s already “getting my head handed to me negotiating on climate change with India and China,” sources said.
Finally, Obama warned Democrats not to start acting like Republicans, whose emphasis on party purity has often sowed dysfunction in Washington.
But Obama’s emergency visit to Capitol Hill — something only finalized by early Friday morning — didn’t likely change many minds. In fact, some in the room said Obama’s remarks rubbed them the wrong way.
“I felt like I got taken to the woodshed. A lot of us felt like we were getting scolded by the president,” said a House Democrat, who voted against both trade measures.
A day earlier, the mood was a bit lighter. Obama braved the brutal humidity and made a surprise visit to the Congressional Baseball Game at Nationals Park on Thursday. In the Democrats’ dugout along the third baseline, Obama, sporting sunglasses, cracked jokes and posed for photos with lawmakers.
He didn’t mention trade to the players in pinstripes, but the issue was unavoidable. Fans sitting in the stands behind the Democrats held homemade signs reading: “VOTE NO TAA. NO FAST TRACK.”
Along the first baseline, Republican fans began chanting, “TPA! TPA!” As he made his way off the field, Obama hoisted up the game trophy. By the final inning, it would belong to the Democrats.
The Medicare mess
TAA was already limping along by the time Obama made stops at the ballpark and Capitol Hill.
On Tuesday, Boehner and Pelosi huddled in the Speaker’s office for what was the first of several sit-down meetings and phone calls this week on trade. Just as they had struck a deal on Medicare reforms in April, the two leaders agreed to scrap Medicare cuts that the Senate had used to pay for TAA — cuts House Democrats said they couldn’t live with. They were replaced by other offsets.
But by Wednesday, another problem had bubbled up. DeLauro and other critics complained that the way the trade bills were structured meant Democrats would still have to vote for Medicare cuts, even though they were eliminated in a separate trade bill. Voting for Medicare cuts, opponents argued, was tantamount to political suicide.
GOP leaders scrambled to address that technical issue, too, but by then, the die had already been cast.
“When the pay-for was characterized by opponents as a Medicare cut, that became politically unpalatable” to many Democrats, Rep. Rick LarsenRick LarsenAirport shooting revives debate over security measures US wins aerospace subsidies trade case over the EU Business groups, lawmakers back trade case against China MORE (D-Wash.), who backed the trade bills, told The Hill. “Even though it was fixed, folks continued to use it as an excuse to oppose TAA.”
Larsen and other pro-trade members suddenly found themselves pulling double duty, trying to convince Democrats to support fast-track while keeping them from shooting down an aid program they actually liked.
Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas), a pro-trade Democrat, said he fielded multiple calls in the final days from U.S. Trade Representative Michael FromanMichael FromanOvernight Finance: Carson, Warren battle at hearing | Rumored consumer bureau pick meets Trump | Trump takes credit for Amazon hirings | A big loss for Soros US launches trade case against China over aluminum subsidies Trade with China important to US economy, report MORE, urging him to lean on his colleagues. One call even pulled him out of an Appropriations Committee hearing, as liberals seized on the last-ditch strategy.
“He called me, said, ‘Hey, TAA?’ ” Cuellar recalled. “I said, ‘I understand, we’re working on it.’ ”
Cabinet blitzes Capitol Hill
Froman wasn’t the only administration official buttonholing Democrats. In recent weeks, Obama had asked his entire Cabinet to blitz both Democratic and Republican lawmakers to help pass his trade agenda.
Secretary of State John KerryJohn KerryKerry: Trump comments on German chancellor ‘inappropriate’ Palestinian leader: Moving Israel embassy could jeopardize peace process UN leader willing to meet lawmakers amid push to cut funding MORE defended the Pacific Rim trade deal during a stop at a Boeing 737 plant just outside Seattle. Commerce Secretary Penny PritzkerPenny PritzkerTech groups warn against EU copyright rule The best way to grow and sustain a strong economy is not easy What Trump's Cabinet picks reveal MORE made calls this week, while SBA Administrator Maria Contreras-Sweet was tasked with using her California connections to try to sway some in her state’s large delegation.
White House chief of staff Denis McDonoughDenis McDonoughChief of staff: Obama administration 'historically free of scandal' Sunday shows preview: Trump allies appear after John Lewis criticism The Hill's 12:30 Report MORE and Labor Secretary Tom Perez were regulars on the Hill this week as they tried to turn votes.
In the end, it wasn’t enough.
"I don't think you ever nail anything down around here,” Obama said as he left his meeting with House Democrats and made his way to his idling motorcade. “It's always moving."
— Peter Schroeder contributed to this report.