House Democrats are voicing high praise for Rep. Nancy Pelosi's handling of the contentious trade debate, even despite moves to help President Obama pass an agenda that's anathema to her troops.
Pelosi (D-Calif.) had no good options heading into last week's votes on fast-track authority and workers aid, caught squarely between the president she wants to support and the left-leaning caucus she commands. In a debate where there was very little middle ground, she was forced to walk a tightrope in an effort to bolster Obama's hand without undermining the position of her liberal base.
In the end she split the difference, fighting to secure a process that greased the skids for passage of Obama's trade package before joining her caucus in voting to block it.
"I was not clear where she was going but I knew it would be OK, just from experience. And she did a masterful job," said Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.), ranking member of the Rules Committee and a vocal opponent of Obama's trade agenda. "You underestimate Nancy Pelosi at your peril. There is no better politician in the United States."
"She really struggled with how to be loyal to her caucus and how they were feeling, and how to not let the president down," an anti-trade Democrat said. "This was a very challenging political situation to navigate, and I think she tried to be fair to everybody involved, which is why she stayed neutral for so long. … She wanted others to get where they got without her driving them to be against the president."
By appearances, Pelosi did everything in her power to get the trade package to Obama's desk. She was meticulous in declining to say how she'd vote, granting administration officials the time and space to make their pitch to wary lawmakers. She convinced Speaker John BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerLobbying world A new kind of hero? Last week's emotional TV may be a sign GOP up in arms over Cheney, Kinzinger MORE (R-Ohio) to remove an offset provision that would have cut hundreds of millions of dollars from Medicare, eliminating a major complaint from liberal critics. And she was instrumental in devising a three-vote strategy — in lieu of the two-vote plan demanded by Republicans — to remove lingering liberal concerns about the Medicare pay-for.
Pelosi took plenty of lumps from liberal groups opposed to trade-promotion authority (TPA) legislation, which is seen as a necessary step if Obama is to finalize an emerging 12-nation Pacific trade deal that could affect 40 percent of the global economy. The groups bombarded her office with phone calls and petitions. And ahead of last week's votes, more than 200 activists, organized by CREDO, protested outside of Pelosi's San Francisco office urging her to come out strongly against the looming trade package.
Republicans interpreted Pelosi's moves as an indication that she would pull her caucus behind the Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA) bill — a program Democrats have historically championed — thereby clearing the way to send the TPA measure, known as fast-track, to Obama's desk.
A few hours later, she took to the House floor to put the final nail in the TAA's coffin.
"Our people would rather have a job than trade assistance," Pelosi said in her much-anticipated speech. "Its defeat, sad to say, is the only way that we will be able to slow down the fast track."
A House GOP leadership aide suggested that Pelosi, despite making no explicit commitments, seemed to support the idea of bringing Democrats around to the TAA, but changed her tune only when she recognized she was powerless to do so.
"It's probably the first time I've seen that she didn't have control over her caucus," the aide said.
Rep. Ed Perlmutter (Colo.), one of just 40 Democrats who backed the TAA, said he was surprised at the level of Democratic opposition to the workers aid measure. But he also suggested Pelosi's decision to stay neutral until the very end was the right one considering the thorny nature of the debate.
"She voted the way she wanted to vote, and I never felt she'd made a commitment one way or the other," said Perlmutter, who voted against the TPA.
Even those Democrats who support Obama's trade agenda had good things to say about Pelosi's strategy.
"She played a very useful role in finding a different offset, and I think she absolutely was sincere in the sequencing of the votes," said Rep. Gerry ConnollyGerald (Gerry) Edward ConnollyHow lawmakers aided the Afghan evacuation Overnight Defense & National Security — Congress begins Afghanistan grilling Connolly rips Wilson over 'you lie' during Blinken hearing MORE (D-Va.). "It turned out not to be [successful], but she had no way of knowing that, nor did any of us."
The congressional fight over trade is hardly over. On Thursday, GOP leaders passed the fast-track bill after divorcing it from the workers aid legislation. The move sends the TPA proposal back to the Senate, which had approved legislation last month combining the two proposals.
What Senate GOP leaders do next remains unclear, but they're eying a strategy of passing the stand-alone TPA bill followed by the TAA attached to a non-controversial measure granting trade preferences to African nations.
For the Democrats in both chambers, much of the debate moving forward hinges on trust — both in GOP leaders to move a TAA bill after the TPA passes, and in Obama not to sign the fast-track measure without the accompanying workers aid bill.
The White House, for its part, has said repeatedly that Obama won't accept a TPA bill without assurances that the TAA will also pass through Congress — a commitment reiterated by spokesman Eric Schultz on Thursday.
"The only strategy that we support moving through Congress is one that includes both of those pieces getting to his desk for his signature," Schultz said.
But even some Democratic supporters of the TAA program say the Republican bill simply doesn't include enough funding to ensure the necessary help for workers harmed by trade deals.
Rep. Xavier BecerraXavier BecerraBiden administration releases B in COVID-19 relief for providers White House plan backs Medicare drug price negotiation Nursing homes warn vaccine mandate could lead to staff shortages MORE (Calif.), head of the Democratic Caucus, called the TAA bill "woefully inadequate." And Rep. Ruben HinojosaRuben Elroy HinojosaTurning the tables to tackle poverty and homelessness in rural America Ethics: Lawmakers didn’t ‘knowingly’ break rules with Azerbaijan gifts Dems heap praise on Pelosi for trade moves MORE, the only Democratic TPA supporter to oppose the TAA, said workers in his south Texas district were devastated by trade deals of the past, and the current TAA could pose the same problems.
"It's insufficient," he said.
Pelosi, meanwhile, is predicting the Senate's potential strategy would fail in the House, arguing that African preferences bill shouldn't be used as a vehicle for more controversial trade provisions.
"I don't see a path right now for TAA," she said. "Let's just get [the preferences bill] moving and done and not have it be part of any controversy."