Obama’s Warren attacks backfire

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President Obama’s sharp rebuke of Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D) over his ambitious trade agenda is backfiring in the House, where the personal attacks are alienating the same Democrats the president is courting for votes.

Warren, a freshman liberal from Massachusetts, has emerged as among the fiercest and most visible opponents of Obama’s trade wish list, which includes deals with countries in Asia and Europe the president is hoping to make a legacy of his White House tenure.

The tough tenor was designed to rally the backing of more Democrats, particularly in the House, where GOP leaders are struggling to find the 217 votes needed to pass the fast-track bill aimed at facilitating those pacts. 

{mosads}Instead, Obama’s rhetoric — he said his critics were “just wrong” in an interview with Yahoo published Saturday — seems to have exacerbated tensions between Democrats and the White House, which could make it tougher to move one of the president’s top legislative priorities through Congress this year.

“You and I can disagree about policy, but I can’t call you a bad person or impugn your motives or anything else — except at great risk,” Rep. Jim McDermott (Wash.), a liberal Democrat who’s undecided but leaning against the trade bill, said Wednesday.

“Civility in this business is important, because tomorrow I have to work with you, tomorrow I may need you badly,” he added. “A lot of people are standing around saying, ‘You know something, this is getting to be a personal thing, and that’s not the way we want to go here.’ … He went quite a ways with her and I think probably he won’t go that far again.”

Appearing Wednesday on C-SPAN’s “Washington Journal” program, Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) offered a similar critique, saying he was “disappointed” that Obama adopted an “insulting” tone toward Warren, while “acting like she has no legitimate point of view.”

“If I was trying to persuade a friend, I wouldn’t start out by saying how deficient they were,” said Ellison, a long-time opponent of trade deals who heads the Congressional Progressive Caucus. “If you want your friends to go for something, meet their concerns as opposed to putting them down.”

The tensions underlying the trade debate have highlighted a long-standing problem for the president: namely, his penchant for negotiating legislation in ways that leave even his closest allies on Capitol Hill feeling excluded from the process.

“We’re the children at the kids’ table during the negotiations,” Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.), an opponent of the trade legislation, said Wednesday.

“We’ve had the president’s back over and over and over again — and I can disagree with the president and still have his back — [but] it’d be nice if the approach was reciprocal,” Pocan added. “Elizabeth Warren agrees with Barack Obama on 98-99 percent of issues, and to decide to take her to task on the 1 percent is just a very ineffective way to gain friends.”

Perhaps recognizing the growing disdain, the White House on Wednesday shifted its tone toward Warren, emphasizing the long list of issues on which she and the president agree. 

“This doesn’t reflect a difference in values,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest said. “The president and Sen. Warren both believe it’s important for the government to put in place policies that will expand opportunities for middle-class families.”

Earnest said Obama is trying to appeal to liberals’ “values” to “try to win their support” for trade promotion authority. 

Earlier this week, the approach was different. The White House threw fuel on the fire after Warren accused the administration of keeping the details of the emerging Asian-Pacific deal secret.

“There is no need for this false criticism that members of Congress aren’t aware of what’s being negotiated,” Earnest said Monday, adding that Democrats who haven’t read the agreement, made available in a secure briefing room, “have failed to take responsibility.”

Still, despite the softer tone, the White House is not backing away from its criticism of Warren’s claims. 

During a testy exchange with a CNN reporter who questioned whether the White House mishandled its sales pitch to liberals, Earnest accused the critics of “complaining” about free trade instead of offering constructive ideas. 

Earnest also said Democrats should “stick to the facts” when debating trade.

At issue is a trade promotion authority (TPA) bill, known as fast-tack, designed to catalyze the passage of international trade deals being negotiated by the administration, including an expansive accord with Japan, Vietnam and nine other nations.

Authored by Sens. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), along with Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), the proposal grants Congress an up-or-down vote on trade deals negotiated by the Obama administration, but denies lawmakers the power to amend them.

Democratic support for the TPA bill will likely be crucial for GOP leaders to move the bill through the lower chamber, where a number of conservatives oppose the notion of granting more power to a president they distrust.

At least 12 House Democrats are on record backing the TPA bill, according to The Hill’s whip count, and that number is likely to grow in the coming days. It’s unclear how much Democratic support GOP leaders would need to reach the 217 votes required to pass the bill through the House.

Obama’s trade agenda hit a wall on Tuesday, when Senate Democrats blocked the bipartisan fast-track bill over concerns that it excluded too many of the Democrats’ other trade priorities, including a proposal tackling currency manipulation. 

The impasse didn’t last long; Senate leaders reached a deal Wednesday to move the legislation by granting votes on a pair of Democratic trade bills before moving to the TPA package.

McDermott, for one, said that given the high stakes of the debate, the tensions and emotions are to be expected. 

“Some people may feel a little bit jostled in all of it,” he said, “but this is a contact sport.”

Tags Barack Obama Elizabeth Warren Fast track

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