White House Trade Pitch Goes Into Overdrive

The Obama administration is using every possible forum to lobby reluctant Democrats on TPP and TPA.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe waves at the end of his address to a joint session of Congress at the US Capitol in Washington, DC, April 29, 2015, as US Vice President Joe Biden (L) and House Speaker John Boehner applaud. AFP PHOTO / SAUL LOEB (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)
National Journal
Ben Geman and Alex Brown
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Ben Geman and Alex Brown
April 29, 2015, 4:05 p.m.

The Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion is ramp­ing up a massive sales pitch on trade policy, bring­ing key Demo­crats to the White House—and us­ing one of its most ef­fect­ive lob­by­ists in the hall­ways of the Cap­it­ol.

Vice Pres­id­ent Joe Biden let re­port­ers know Wed­nes­day that Ja­pan­ese Prime Min­is­ter Shinzo Abe nailed it on the Trans-Pa­cific Part­ner­ship when Abe spoke to Con­gress. Abe, whose speech made the case to law­makers on the se­cur­ity and eco­nom­ic di­men­sions of the con­tro­ver­sial trade pact, got it right, the vice pres­id­ent told a small group of re­port­ers as he walked through the Cap­it­ol af­ter­ward.

“This has as much stra­tegic con­sequence as eco­nom­ic con­sequence,” Biden said. “If we don’t write the rules of the road in this … cen­tury, the abil­ity of China to be the dom­in­ant—not only eco­nom­ic, but the dom­in­ant polit­ic­al force in the re­gion—will be con­sequen­tial.”

“When you have 40 per­cent of the world’s GDP—as­sum­ing we can get a good deal here—40 per­cent of the world’s GDP en­com­passed in a new set of stand­ards re­lat­ing to the en­vir­on­ment, is­sues re­lat­ing to labor stand­ards, and raise the level, that is what we have to do, and we have to do it around the world, be­cause if we don’t set the stand­ards, it will be a race to the bot­tom,” he con­tin­ued.

Biden seiz­ing the chance to talk trade is just one part of a much wider White House PR and lob­by­ing blitz for the TPP and, equally im­port­ant, the “fast-track” bill that would strip Con­gress of its abil­ity to amend sweep­ing trade deals.

Ul­ti­mately, mem­bers say, the pro­spects of the fast-track bill—also known as Trade Pro­mo­tion Au­thor­ity—will be de­term­ined by House Demo­crats. The caucus has tra­di­tion­ally op­posed such le­gis­la­tion, but Re­pub­lic­ans have said they will need Demo­crat­ic votes to move the bill. In re­cent weeks, the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion has sent Cab­in­et sec­ret­ar­ies and White House ad­visers to lobby and brief the caucus.

Much of that out­reach has fo­cused on the New Demo­crat Co­ali­tion, a 46-strong group of pro-busi­ness law­makers. The group was slated to meet with Sen. Ron Wyden, one of the Sen­ate’s TPA ar­chi­tects, on Wed­nes­day. Its mem­bers will then head to the White House Thursday to hear Obama’s pitch for the bill.

Rep. Ron Kind, the New Demo­crats’ chair­man, said the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s out­reach has been strong and many mem­bers are keep­ing an open mind. “There’s been a lot of activ­ity by them, a lot of brief­ing, and a lot of ac­cess to [U.S. Trade Rep­res­ent­at­ive] Mike Fro­man and the text of what’s be­ing ne­go­ti­ated,” Kind said. “That’s all good. That’s ex­actly what they should be do­ing. “¦ I’m still work­ing hard to see if we can get about 120, 130 at the end of the day.”

Des­pite Kind’s hope for triple-di­git back­ing, most Demo­crats ex­pect sup­port to come in smal­ler num­bers. “Most Demo­crats are go­ing to vote no; that’s pretty clear,” said Rep. Ger­ald Con­nolly, one of the New Demo­crats’ vice chairs. Con­nolly said that as many as 50 Demo­crats could sup­port TPA, but that 35 yes votes is a “more real­ist­ic” hope.

The ad­min­is­tra­tion re­mains in sales mode.

“They keep talk­ing to us. They are mak­ing every ef­fort,” said Rep. Xavi­er Be­cerra, chair­man of the House Demo­crat­ic Caucus, who voted against the fast-track bill that the Ways and Means Com­mit­tee ap­proved last week.

Rep. Earl Blumenauer, who along with Kind was one of the two Demo­crats to sup­port the fast-track bill in Ways and Means, said there’s more room to ne­go­ti­ate. “I think they have been re­cept­ive at least to ideas that I’ve had to try and strengthen the pack­age … and I don’t think we’re done,” Blumenauer said of the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion. “I think they are open to strength­en­ing it fur­ther.”

While mem­bers cred­it caucus lead­er­ship for be­ing open-minded on TPA (neither Minor­ity Lead­er Nancy Pelosi nor Whip Steny Hoy­er have taken a po­s­i­tion on the bill), out­side groups have been more out­spoken. Labor gi­ant AFL-CIO has cut off cam­paign fund­ing to fo­cus on fight­ing the bill, and some pro­gress­ive groups are seek­ing to line up primary chal­lengers for TPA back­ers like Wyden.

That pres­sure has made it dif­fi­cult for mem­bers who might oth­er­wise be open to sup­port­ing TPA, Con­nolly said, es­pe­cially since many of the bill’s strongest out­side back­ers—such as the U.S. Cham­ber of Com­merce—are too par­tis­an to come to the aid of trade-sup­port­ing Demo­crats.

“A lot of the ef­fort of the White House has been mak­ing the sub­stant­ive ar­gu­ment,” Con­nolly said. “My con­cern is we’re go­ing to win that ar­gu­ment but maybe fall short on the polit­ic­al ar­gu­ment. If you’re a po­ten­tial yes vote and you’re still hanging back, there’s a reas­on for that, and it’s gen­er­ally not go­ing to be about con­tent. It may be about pro­cess, it may be about out­side groups and how to man­age that, it may be about what if any sup­port the White House is pre­pared to of­fer you to try to help pro­tect you and give you what you may need.”

That as­sur­ance, he said, will be cru­cial for Demo­crats who are still on the fence. “Where does one go for some help, sup­port, pro­tec­tion?” he asked. “And that’s why the White House at this point is go­ing to be so crit­ic­al. Is the White House will­ing or cap­able of provid­ing polit­ic­al cov­er for people who would like to have the free­dom to vote yes?”

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