Barack Obama’s Battle With Senate Democrats Is Over. For Now.

With a new trade deal in hand, the president can put aside the brief war of words with members of his own party.

President Obama addresses the Catholic-Evangelical Leadership Summit on Overcoming Poverty at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., on May 12, 2015.
National Journal
Lauren Fox and S.V. Dáte
Add to Briefcase
Lauren Fox and S.V. Dáte
May 13, 2015, 4 p.m.

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.

What We're Following See More »
Rosenstein Holds Presser On Russian Indictments
2 days ago
U.S. Indicts 13 Russian Nationals For Election Interference
2 days ago

The indictment, filed in the District of Columbia, alleges that the interference began "in or around 2014," when the defendants began tracking and studying U.S. social media sites. They "created and controlled numerous Twitter accounts" and "purchased computer servers located inside the United States" to mask their identities, some of which were stolen. The interference was coordinated by election interference "specialists," and focused on the Black Lives Matter movement, immigration, and other divisive issues. "By early to mid-2016" the groups began supporting the campaign of "then-candidate Donald Trump," including by communicating with "unwitting individuals associated with the Trump Campaign..."

Gates Said to Be Finalizing a Plea Deal
3 days ago

"Former Trump campaign adviser Rick Gates is finalizing a plea deal with special counsel Robert Mueller's office, indicating he's poised to cooperate in the investigation, according to sources familiar with the case. Gates has already spoken to Mueller's team about his case and has been in plea negotiations for about a month. He's had what criminal lawyers call a 'Queen for a Day' interview, in which a defendant answers any questions from the prosecutors' team, including about his own case and other potential criminal activity he witnessed."

Another Defeat for Immigration Legislation in the Senate
3 days ago

"The Senate on Thursday rejected immigration legislation crafted by centrists in both parties after President Trump threatened to veto the bill if it made it to his desk. In a 54-45 vote, the Senate failed to advance the legislation from eight Republican, seven Democratic and one Independent senators. It needed 60 votes to overcome a procedural hurdle. "

House Intel Panel Could Charge Bannon with Contempt
3 days ago

"The House Intelligence Committee has scheduled a Thursday meeting to hear testimony from Steve Bannon—but it's an open question whether President Donald Trump's former chief strategist will even show up. The White House sent a letter to Capitol Hill late Wednesday laying out its explanation for why Trump's transition period falls under its authority to assert executive privilege, a move intended to shield Bannon from answering questions about that time period." Both Republicans and Democrats on the committee dispute the White House's theory, and have floated charging Bannon with contempt should he refuse to appear.


Welcome to National Journal!

You are currently accessing National Journal from IP access. Please login to access this feature. If you have any questions, please contact your Dedicated Advisor.