Obama’s Trade Headache Continues

Everybody’s playing hard to get as the White House lobby shop goes into overdrive.

President Barack Obama walks to the Rose Garden to announce his pick for the new chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the White House in Washington on May 5, 2015.
National Journal
S.V. Dáte and Alex Rogers
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S.V. Dáte Alex Rogers
May 5, 2015, 4:05 p.m.

Just how tough has is it been for Pres­id­ent Obama on trade?

The White House has had to make a full-court press on Sen. Tim Kaine, the former chair­man of the Demo­crat­ic Na­tion­al Com­mit­tee who rep­res­ents the pro-trade state of Vir­gin­ia. Kaine is someone who in the­ory should be in front on this is­sue, but like many oth­er Demo­crats, he has in­stead been a sol­id maybe.

Kaine has be­come close pals with Obama’s top trade ne­go­ti­at­or, Mi­chael Fro­man. “I bet I’ve had five phone con­ver­sa­tions and three in-per­son meet­ings with Fro­man over the past 18 months,” Kaine said in an in­ter­view. “And any time along the way that I’ve had a ques­tion, I’ve been able to reach out and get an­swers.”

Sen. Chris­toph­er Coons of Delaware, an­oth­er fence-sit­ter, said he got a call from Obama to talk trade Fri­day, then spoke about the is­sue Tues­day with Sen­ate Minor­ity Lead­er Harry Re­id. “There’s been a per­sist­ent and ef­fect­ive out­reach,” from the White House, Coons said, adding that he told the pres­id­ent, “I’m con­sid­er­ing it ser­i­ously.”

At the same time, Coons said he has seen more activ­ity from uni­ons and K Street. “Frankly, the more act­ive push has come from my friends in or­gan­ized labor and folks in the busi­ness com­munity,” he said.

Obama’s job is much tough­er thanks to Re­id. In­stead of merely vot­ing against the bill, he has now made him­self its chief road­b­lock. Re­id wants Sen­ate Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Mitch Mc­Con­nell to tackle re­vi­sions to the law gov­ern­ing the col­lec­tion of phone data and a new high­way bill be­fore wor­ry­ing about trade.

“I can’t ima­gine why the trade bill is so vi­tally im­port­ant,” Re­id said Tues­day. “The trade bill, we could come back after we do something on those two bills, which are so im­port­ant to our coun­try, and then work on the trade bill.”

For his part, Mc­Con­nell is go­ing over the top in praise of the White House.

“At the risk of hav­ing some of you lit­er­ally faint,” Mc­Con­nell told re­port­ers, “I want to com­pli­ment the pres­id­ent for the way he’s hand­ling the trade is­sue. I thought what he did last year and speak­ing the truth to his base was wel­comed and shows that he is in­tent on work­ing with us to get both the Trade Pro­mo­tion Au­thor­ity in place and to sub­sequently ap­prove, hope­fully, a Trans-Pa­cific Part­ner­ship deal.”

Of­fi­cials ran­ging from Treas­ury Sec­ret­ary Jac­ob Lew to In­teri­or Sec­ret­ary Sally Jew­ell to NASA head Kath­ryn Sul­li­van have gone to Cap­it­ol Hill to make sales pitches to skep­tic­al mem­bers. Obama per­son­ally has en­gaged to a de­gree rarely seen, mak­ing re­peated pub­lic state­ments, call­ing mem­bers on the phone, and last week con­ven­ing a two-hour meet­ing for some 30 Demo­crats at the White House.

At the ur­ging of House Minor­ity Lead­er Nancy Pelosi, Fro­man’s of­fice has a room in the un­der­ground Cap­it­ol Vis­it­ors Cen­ter where mem­bers and staff can read the draft lan­guage of the Trans-Pa­cific Part­ner­ship, a 12-na­tion com­pact un­der ne­go­ti­ation among Pa­cific Rim na­tions on four con­tin­ents. Ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials say the move is un­pre­ced­en­ted, as mem­bers of Con­gress pre­vi­ously had to ar­range spe­cif­ic meet­ings to see ac­tu­al lan­guage be­fore deals were com­pleted.

The White House has found it­self in the un­usu­al po­s­i­tion of re­ly­ing upon Re­pub­lic­ans to de­liv­er the vast ma­jor­ity of sup­port needed to ce­ment a leg­acy-de­fin­ing agree­ment. When Sen. Chuck Grass­ley, a mem­ber of the Fin­ance Com­mit­tee, raised ques­tions re­gard­ing im­mig­ra­tion con­cerns that trouble hard­liners, Fro­man as­sured him in a let­ter that he had noth­ing to worry about. 

And Fin­ance Chair­man Or­rin Hatch, a key ne­go­ti­at­ing part­ner, has fielded at least one per­son­al phone call from the pres­id­ent in the past month to dis­cuss trade. He also found him­self face-to-face with the pres­id­ent when Obama traveled to Hatch’s home state of Utah for the first time at the be­gin­ning of April, a few weeks be­fore a cru­cial com­mit­tee vote.

“I’ve got to give him cred­it—I think the pres­id­ent de­serves this win,” Hatch said. “It’s go­ing to be the most im­port­ant bill in his ten­ure.”

Wheth­er it’s the “most” im­port­ant bill in Obama’s two terms is de­bat­able—Obama likely would make the case for the health care law that’s be­come linked to his own name. But giv­en Re­pub­lic­ans’ con­trol of Con­gress for the fi­nal two years of his pres­id­ency, get­ting the trade bills could be the best Obama can real­ist­ic­ally hope.

Even though Re­pub­lic­ans con­trol both cham­bers, their num­bers aren’t suf­fi­ciently large to let them pass either the “fast-track” au­thor­ity or the Pa­cific trade deal without Demo­crat­ic help. Sen­ate rules re­quire 60 votes to pass just about any­thing, and Re­pub­lic­ans ex­pect to lose per­haps a half-dozen mem­bers—mean­ing Obama will need a dozen Demo­crat­ic yes votes to meet that 60-vote threshold.

In the House, where Re­pub­lic­ans hold a 50-seat ma­jor­ity, Speak­er John Boehner has nev­er­the­less asked for Obama’s help be­cause of ex­pec­ted de­fec­tions from Re­pub­lic­ans—some of whom come from dis­tricts with strong uni­ons, some of whom simply will not sup­port any­thing Obama sup­ports. Boehner could need any­where from a hand­ful to sev­er­al dozen Demo­crats, de­pend­ing on how Re­pub­lic­ans de­fect.

In that job of per­suad­ing Demo­crats, Obama and his people face op­pos­i­tion from groups that typ­ic­ally are al­lies: labor and en­vir­on­ment­al­ists. Uni­ons ar­gue that mak­ing in­ter­na­tion­al trade even easi­er will simply send more Amer­ic­an jobs to low-wage coun­tries, while en­vir­on­ment­al­ists say that in­dus­tri­al pol­lu­tion that would nev­er be tol­er­ated in this coun­try is ac­cep­ted as nor­mal in many de­vel­op­ing coun­tries hungry for man­u­fac­tur­ing jobs.

Obama has countered that the new trade au­thor­ity bill im­poses stronger labor and en­vir­on­ment­al pro­tec­tions than any pre­vi­ous such le­gis­la­tion.

And as to Re­id’s in­sist­ence that the Sen­ate first tackle changes to the law deal­ing with col­lec­tion of phone re­cords and a new high­way bill, White House Press Sec­ret­ary Josh Earn­est said do­ing those two items should not pre­clude the Sen­ate’s abil­ity to vote on the trade bill.

“We’re set­ting the bar aw­fully low if we think the Sen­ate can only do one thing over the course of the next month. The Amer­ic­an people have a high­er ex­pect­a­tion for the abil­ity of the United States Sen­ate to get things done,” Earn­est said.

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