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
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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.

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