White House battles back at suggestions Obama has no clout

White House battles back at suggestions Obama has no clout

The White House on Friday battled suggestions President Obama has lost his clout on Capitol Hill, following a stinging defeat for his trade agenda. 

A revolt by House Democrats derailed a series of votes that would have granted Obama fast-track trade authority, a top legislative goal of the year.

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The House will likely attempt another vote next week, but Friday’s defeat raised concerns about Obama’s power — or lack thereof — to advance his agenda and cement his legacy. 

If the trade package ultimately fails, “the president would not be a lame-duck. He would be a dead duck,” said Brandon Rottinghaus, a presidential historian at the University of Houston. “It would be a body blow for the administration.”

The trade package failed after a furious, last-ditch effort by Obama to save it. 

The president made a surprise appearance on Capitol Hill to plead with House Democrats to back his trade agenda in the face of staunch opposition from labor and environmental groups.

But Obama’s personal appeals weren’t enough. Minority Leader Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiThe Hill's Morning Report - In exclusive interview, Trump talks Biden, Iran, SCOTUS and reparations Lawmakers 'failed us' says ICE chief Pelosi, Democratic leaders seek to quell liberal revolt over border bill MORE (D-Calif.), who had remained neutral on the legislation for months, used a dramatic floor speech to announce her opposition to a measure granting aid to workers displaced by trade. 

The measure, known as Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA), went down in flames, with 302 lawmakers voting against it. That could sink the larger package that includes the fast-track power Obama wants to help complete a sweeping Pacific Rim trade deal. 

The House then voted 219-211 to approve the fast-track measure. But it cannot reach the president’s desk until the impasse on TAA is resolved because the Senate passed both measures in a single legislative package. 

The vote “hobbled a Democratic president,” said Rep. Jim Himes (D-Conn.), a supporter of Obama’s trade plan. 

White House press secretary Josh Earnest downplayed the defeat as “another procedural snafu,” comparing it to a failed test vote last month in the Senate on the trade package, which eventually passed. 

He noted that the House did pass the fast-track bill with support from Democrats and Republicans, after observers expressed “a lot of skepticism” that could be done.  

Saying fast-track failed is not “an accurate assessment of what happened,” Earnest said.

The White House and House Republicans said they planned to press ahead and find a way to push through TAA, a program that Democrats have traditionally supported, in order to get the trade package to Obama’s desk. 

“I urge the House to pass TAA without delay so that more middle-class workers can earn the chance to participate and succeed in our global economy,” Obama said in a statement Friday. 

Despite his optimism, Earnest acknowledged the White House faces a tough task. 

“Clearly, what I would concede is our work is not done yet,” he said.   

Friday’s failure raised questions about how much more Obama will be able to accomplish with just 18 months left in his presidency. 

The White House launched its most intense lobbying operation in years to pass the trade bills. Obama and his senior advisers urged Democrats for months to get behind his trade agenda, using personal calls from the president, meetings in Obama’s private dining room, briefings by Cabinet officials and flights on Air Force One.

Obama, who has famously shunned schmoozing with lawmakers, made a surprise appearance at the Congressional Baseball Game the night before the vote.

The president’s personal involvement in the last 24 hours came after his top Cabinet officials made a hard sell to House Democrats to back the TAA measure.

“We need to treat this moment for what it is: a life or death moment for TAA,” Treasury Secretary Jack Lew said during a closed-door meeting with House Democrats, according to an aide familiar with the discussions. 

Despite tensions over Obama’s distant relationship with lawmakers, House Democrats have stood by his side on almost every major initiative of his administration, including the economic stimulus and the Affordable Care Act. 

But on trade, Obama had to rely on Republicans, who are traditionally more supportive of free-trade agreements than Democrats. 

The president needs to work with Congress on issues like a budget deal, highway funding and a cybersecurity bill. He is also looking to build support among lawmakers for a pending nuclear agreement with Iran. 

Even though the White House has cooperated with Republicans on trade, it’s unlikely to help him achieve his remaining goals in Congress. 

Obama and House Republicans remain ideologically divided on major tax and spending issues. 

The president has threatened to veto a litany of GOP appropriations bills, including a must-pass measure that funds the Department of Defense, setting up a budget showdown with no clear solution. 

And with the 2016 presidential election fast approaching, there will be even less incentive for the two parties to collaborate on major policy proposals.  

“As much goodwill as he is accumulating for this deal, it may not translate to success on other issues,”  Rottinghaus said.