Democrats Mend Fences After Bloody Trade Fight

Liberal lawmakers were unhappy with Obama, but they don’t expect the bad feelings to linger.

TUSCON, AZ - APRIL 24: U.S. Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-AZ) denounces Arizona's tough new immigration law on April 24, 2010 in Tuscon, Arizona. Grijalva, who shut his Tuscon office the day before because of death threats, called for an economic boycott of Arizona because of the new law, which he called racist. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)
National Journal
June 25, 2015, 11:15 a.m.

After weeks of all-out fight­ing over Pres­id­ent Obama’s trade agenda—and a bit­ter de­feat for its Demo­crat­ic op­pon­ents—the com­batants in the House Demo­crat­ic Caucus are ready to bury the hatchet.

The House on Thursday passed Trade Ad­just­ment As­sist­ance, pav­ing the way for that meas­ure and Trade Pro­mo­tion Au­thor­ity to head to Obama’s desk. TAA passed on a 286-138 vote, just two weeks after the House over­whelm­ingly de­feated a sim­il­ar meas­ure. The first time, most Demo­crats voted against the work­er-as­sist­ance bill—which they would nor­mally sup­port—in or­der to stall the fast-track bill. This time around, Demo­crats gave in, back­ing TAA and end­ing the fight for now.

“I don’t see the con­gres­sion­al Demo­crats mak­ing this an on­go­ing war,” said Rep. Raul Gri­jalva, a co­chair of the Con­gres­sion­al Pro­gress­ive Caucus. Gri­jalva was one of the lead­ing op­pon­ents of Trade Pro­mo­tion Au­thor­ity, but in the end was able only to delay it for a mat­ter of weeks. “Those of us who were op­posed to this strategy—it’s not something that you use as a reas­on for be­ing op­posed to any­thing the pres­id­ent does. And I don’t see that be­ing the net ef­fect.”

That doesn’t mean Demo­crats are done fight­ing over trade. TPA pre­vents Con­gress from amend­ing the pending Trans-Pa­cific Part­ner­ship, but mem­bers will still get an up-or-down vote when the 12-na­tion trade deal is com­pleted. Demo­crats say they’re gear­ing up for that de­bate, rather than air­ing sour grapes over their TPA de­feat.

“This was one area of dis­agree­ment, and we’re go­ing to con­tin­ue to work on TPP,” said House Ways and Means Com­mit­tee rank­ing mem­ber Sander Lev­in, a lead­ing voice on the is­sue and ul­ti­mately an op­pon­ent of the TPA bill. “And I’m hope­ful for a more pro­duct­ive re­la­tion­ship and a more pro­duct­ive out­come.”

House Minor­ity Lead­er Nancy Pelosi also said she is ready to move on to the TPP de­bate.

“[T]his is the end of phase one,” Pelosi said on the House floor Thursday. “… And we all stand ready to go to the next phase, and that next phase is to keep a very sharp, clear, bright light fo­cused on the pro­vi­sions of the TPP.”

Lev­in ad­ded that Demo­crats’ areas of agree­ment—and the re­main­ing obstacles they face—su­per­sede the trade dis­pute. “We cel­eb­rated the Su­preme Court de­cision, all of us,” he said, soon after the Court an­nounced its rul­ing up­hold­ing the Af­ford­able Care Act. “We’re go­ing to be talk­ing with the ad­min­is­tra­tion on Ir­an. We’ve got work to do on high­ways. We’ve nev­er taken it per­son­ally, and we’re proud of this pres­id­ent on most is­sues. Here we have a sig­ni­fic­ant dis­agree­ment and we want to keep work­ing on it.”

Even dur­ing the heat of the trade de­bate, most mem­bers tried to down­play their pub­lic squabbles with the ad­min­is­tra­tion. “I think it’s ob­vi­ous that most Demo­crats dis­agree with fast-track,” said Rep. Brad Sher­man, speak­ing after Obama made his trade pitch to the caucus two weeks ago. “That does not mean that we dis­agree with the ded­ic­a­tion and the re­cord of this pres­id­ent. We are very proud of this pres­id­ent; we have had his back again and again.”

Ad­ded Rep. Bar­bara Lee: “I don’t think the pres­id­ent nor mem­bers are be­ing disin­genu­ous; it’s just we have dif­fer­ent points of view.”

Mod­er­ates, too, don’t ex­pect the back­lash to last long. “The closer a vote gets, the more fric­tion between the two forces. Fric­tion cre­ates heat, and we’re in the middle of the heat,” said Rep. Denny Heck, a mem­ber of the mod­er­ate New Demo­crat Co­ali­tion, which sup­plied many of the Demo­crat­ic TPA votes. Heck him­self voted against it, but counts as friends many of its sup­port­ers.

And while some pro­gress­ive groups and labor uni­ons have threatened primary chal­lenges for the Demo­crats who backed TPA, that mes­sage isn’t res­on­at­ing in the Cap­it­ol. “I have not heard a single mem­ber sup­port or even in tone be pos­it­ive to­ward primary­ing one of their col­leagues—not a one,” said Heck. “Things can get pretty emo­tion­al around here, but I sure have not heard that. “¦ Not one whis­per.”

Gri­jalva echoed that. “The Pro­gress­ive Caucus and our mem­bers, we’re not in for re­tri­bu­tion. We thought they took a wrong vote, and the con­sequences of that vote are in their dis­trict. But in terms of us ral­ly­ing around to de­feat them, we’re not in­to that. It’s a strategy that in the short term might sat­is­fy the an­ger, but in the long term doesn’t bring us any num­bers to this House.”

Still, the dis­ap­point­ment re­mains. “If this is in­deed a leg­acy vote for the pres­id­ent, there will be a leg­acy of it,” Gri­jalva said. “And I hope sin­cerely that we will not be in a po­s­i­tion to tell every­body, ‘I told you so.’ But the fact is that he pre­vailed with Re­pub­lic­an sup­port, and we lost. But bey­ond that, car­ry­ing on an on­go­ing op­pos­i­tion to the pres­id­ent to be spite­ful—no.”

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