Barack Obama spent only four years in the United States Senate, but it was enough for him to be glad to leave.
Weeks like this one might help explain why. Obama has made trade legislation his top priority for months, mentioning it in nearly every public remark, even taking a cross-country trip last week to talk it up—only to watch its first vote on the floor of his former chamber this week blow up in his face. And the conflict became increasingly personal: After Obama chided Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren for her loud opposition to his trade proposal, another Democrat, Sen. Sherrod Brown, came to Warren’s defense and said Obama may not have spoken similarly about a male senator.
Of the Senate’s 46 Democrats, exactly one voted Tuesday to support a bill that Obama calls vital to the economy.
But then, after a day of lousy news coverage and hand-wringing about a president who couldn’t even get the support of his own party, it all blew over, and things were pretty much where Obama and his aides predicted they would be heading into Monday.
“This is why less patient observers of the Senate are ready to pull their hair out when they observe these kinds of procedural snafus,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest said Wednesday. “It’s not uncommon for Senate procedure to get wrapped around the axle even on really simple, straightforward, noncontroversial pieces of legislation.”
Democrats who had insisted on Tuesday that a provision addressing currency manipulation be included in the trade package agreed on Wednesday to let it come to a vote separately. The White House opposes the currency language, because it says it would restrict the administration’s flexibility in addressing currency manipulation, and further argues that it would threaten the independence of the Federal Reserve.
It was, Obama’s White House decided after Tuesday’s vote, the Senate just being the Senate—100 egos of various sizes needing to believe they are important and pretty certain they are right. Add in a Democrat with debatable people skills managing the bill for his caucus, and a Democratic leader who has taken every opportunity to embarrass the new Republican majority leader, and you have the recipe for what Josh Earnest has repeatedly called a “procedural snafu.”
Sen. Harry Reid has approached minority leadership in a manner similar to the way Republican Mitch McConnell embodied it: forcing every bill to clear a 60-vote threshold to even reach the floor. Reid, who has long opposed free-trade legislation, announced that he was not just a “no” on the Obama- and McConnell-backed trade package, but a “hell no.”
Reid recently demanded that McConnell agree to pass three other bills along with the “fast track” trade-authority bill Obama wants: a proposal that increases help to workers who lose jobs because of outsourcing (McConnell had already agreed to this); one that increases trade opportunities with Africa; and one that forces the administration to get tough with countries that undervalue their currencies to boost their exports.
Reid was one problem for Obama. Ron Wyden was another.
The Oregon Democrat is a strong supporter of free trade, and as ranking member of the Senate Finance Committee, he has pushed the trade proposal on his own. But, as White House aides know, the senator can also sometimes be didactic and abrasive in his dealings with colleagues.
After Obama put together a trip to promote trade in Wyden’s home state last week at Nike headquarters, Wyden cited scheduling problems and did not even attend the event. And then, on Tuesday, Wyden—after weeks of support—announced that he would side with Reid in his insistence that all four bills be considered as a package.
After Wednesday’s deal was struck, Wyden chalked it up as nothing more than a little Democratic squabbling with a headstrong president.
“The president and I have talked about this topic many times over the last few months, and he is all in,” Wyden said. “And when the president of the United States is all in on a topic, there is like no question about it. He feels strongly. My colleagues feel strongly.”
Obama is known for a cool, arms-length relationship with Congress, seemingly preferring to explain what he wants through public pronouncements than engage with members up close. After Tuesday’s vote, though, Obama wasted little time hauling Wyden and nine other pro-trade Democrats he’d been counting on to the White House. For nearly two hours he assuaged worries and soothed bruised egos.
Obama laid out his pitch once again for why Trade Promotion Authority was a must-pass bill. Delaware’s Thomas Carper, the only Democrat to vote for the trade bill Tuesday, described the presentation as “masterful.”
“I know he wasn’t happy, but he wasn’t angry. No temper tantrums. He was at his best,” Carper said. “He was very compelling, and he used humor. He cajoled everybody and nudged us in a direction so that maybe a number of people at that table will vote with me.”
Virginia Democrat Tim Kaine said that the meeting focused on the art of the possible. Many pro-trade Democrats were still very committed to ensuring more enforcement, Kaine said.
But one senator who spoke on background said that Obama’s description last weekend of Sen. Warren, a new icon for the party’s liberal wing, as a “politician,” and referring to her by first name, had left a “bad taste” in the mouths of many senators who were initially sympathetic to the president’s position.
“It deepened and hardened people’s positions,” the senator said Wednesday. “It was unbecoming of the president.”
But other Democratic senators rejected the notion that Obama had been too hard on those in his own party.
“If the president didn’t say anything, they’d say he’s weak. He does say something, and they say he is too strong,” said Sen. Claire McCaskill. “This is a guy who can’t win. If he called her Elizabeth, he is being derogatory. If he called her Senator Warren, he’d be too cold and giving her the cold shoulder.”
Sen. Chris Murphy joked that he read the comments in the media and found them pretty benign.
“No one has impugned anyone’s character,” Murphy said. “Nobody has challenged anyone to a duel. People are passionate about trade on both sides. Everybody should get over it.”
This week’s drama could make it easy to forget that the Senate was supposed to be the easier chamber in Congress on the trade plan. Obama may need as many as several dozen Democrats to get the trade bill through the House, depending on how many Republicans abandon Speaker John Boehner.