House Democrats are in a pressure cooker ahead of a high-stakes vote on a vital piece of President Obama’s ambitious trade agenda.

The White House, joining the powerful business lobby, is applying a full court press in an effort to rally lawmakers behind contentious fast-track legislation that would grant the administration new powers to seal enormous international trade deals that would rank atop Obama’s economic achievements.

The effort is being countered by a lobbying blitz — and unveiled threats, by some accounts — from labor unions, environmentalists and other liberal groups warning of the detrimental effect such deals would have on a range of quality-of-life issues, not least the erosion of U.S. jobs.

Squeezed in the middle are dozens of on-the-fence Democrats whose votes will likely prove crucial to the fate of the trade promotion authority (TPA) legislation that squeaked through the Senate last week and now heads to the lower chamber.

GOP leaders want to move the bill quickly when Congress returns to Washington this week after a holiday recess, but lack enough party support to do so without Democratic votes.

Rarely have the minority Democrats faced such a difficult choice. On one hand, they want to support their ally in the White House on the top economic priority of his second term. On the other, they feel burned by the false promises of trade deals past and have deep-seated concerns that Obama’s agenda — particularly a sweeping 12-nation accord with Pacific Rim nations that’s nearing finalization — would prove little different.

“Just because the administration says it’s the most progressive trade deal in history doesn’t make it so,” said Bill Samuel, director of government affairs at the AFL-CIO.

If the arguments haven’t changed, the lobbying intensity has.

Obama this month staged a high-profile speech at Nike headquarters in Oregon to tout the economic benefits of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman has prowled the halls of the Capitol explaining the proposed deal’s nuances and urging support. And the president called dozens of House Democrats to the White House for a rare two-hour meeting in which he vowed to use all his political capital to defend supporting lawmakers from campaign attacks, left or right.

They may need the help.

Labor groups have threatened enormous, million-dollar ad buys against a pair of West Coast Democrats if they back the measure, according to a House Democratic aide whose boss supports the TPA.

“They’ve made this range of threats — name something off and they’ve done it,” the aide said.

A number of opposition groups contacted for this story declined to weigh in on the veracity of such claims, but were quick to emphasize that they won’t soon forget Democrats who support the legislation.

Murshed Zaheed, deputy political director at CREDO Action, said the group “will be highly aware of which Democrats supported ramming through the TPP” by backing fast track. Justin Krebs, campaign director at, echoed the threat.

“We’re going to be looking at primary candidates,” Krebs said. “We’re definitely not going to let them off the hook.”

The Coalition to Stop Fast Track, a band of liberal groups that includes the AFL-CIO, CREDO, the ACLU and the Sierra Club, organized more than 100 events over the Memorial Day recess — ranging from protests to phone banks to visits to lawmaker offices — designed to pressure Democrats to oppose the trade legislation.

Members of the group targeted Reps. Jim Costa (D-Calif.) in Fresno, Susan Davis (D-Calif). in San Diego, Brad Ashford (D-Neb.) in Omaha, and David Price (D) in North Carolina.

Also in the groups’ sights are Reps. Jim Himes (D-Conn.) and Seth Moulton (D-Mass.), anomalies in their blue states for not coming out in opposition to the TPA.  

A protest against Rep. Ami Bera (D-Calif.) in Sacramento featured giant Q-tips, sending the unsubtle message that the California sophomore should clean out his ears and vote with public sentiment.

The coalition has also bought six-figure TV ads in 17 different districts with the same goal in mind.

“We’ve seen this movie before and we don’t want the sequel,” said Jason Stanford, spokesman for the group.

While some of the targets are Democrats who have already said they’ll back the TPA — including Ashford and Bera — most have not taken a public position.

“We see all the undecideds as swayable,” said Krebs.

Democratic leaders have not been spared the scrutiny. While Reps. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) and James Clyburn (D-S.C.) have all expressed concerns about Obama’s trade agenda, none have said publicly how they’d vote on the TPA bill — a silence that hasn’t gone unnoticed among the liberal groups who want them leading the opposition.

CREDO members have bombarded the offices of Pelosi and Hoyer with more than 4,000 phone calls in recent months, Zaheed said. And opposition activists staged a protest outside Hoyer’s Greenbelt, Md., office on Friday, delivering a picnic basket bearing symbolic gifts like drug bottles, representing concerns about the TPP’s impact on prescription prices, and a fake chicken, to highlight fears about the effects on food safety.

“None of them are standing up,” Krebs said of the leaders. “We want to see all of them step up.”

Siding squarely with Obama has been the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which, viewing the president’s trade agenda as a vital economic engine, has mounted its own lobbying effort to mobilize House lawmakers behind the TPA.

The group’s sway over Democrats, however, is being questioned by even supporters of the measure, who say the lobbying giant’s rightward shift in recent years has made Democrats skeptical about getting the group’s support, regardless of their vote on trade.

The pro-trade Bera, for instance, was a major target of the group in the last election cycle.

“That’s the big question: what are they going to do?” said the House Democratic aide who’s pushing the TPA. “They’ve developed such a partisan reputation. … When they say they’re going to support people, what does that really mean?”

The group did not respond to questions posed for this story.
Sponsored by Sens. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), the TPA bill would grant Congress a vote on trade pacts negotiated by the administration, but lawmakers would not have the option to amend those deals.

Obama, GOP leaders and other supporters argue that fast-track is vital for negotiating trade deals like the TPP that couldn’t be sealed without it. But an overwhelming number of Democrats are adamantly opposed to the measure, citing a range of concerns about the effect on the environment, food safety, currency manipulation and worker safety, among others.

After stumbling earlier in the month, the bill passed the Senate last week on a tight 62-37 vote. Fourteen Democrats supported the measure, but a tougher fight is expected in the House.

In the eyes of the liberal opponents, it won’t stop there.

“No one seems like they’re ready to forgive this,” said Stanford, of the Coalition to Stop Fast Track. “This is not just another square on the score card.”

Tags Ami Bera Michael Froman Orrin Hatch Paul Ryan Ron Wyden

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