House Democrats: Enough With the “Fratricide” on Trade Deal

Labor, progressive groups urged to back off on attacking members who might vote for the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

Demonstrators protest against the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement outside the Senate office buildings on Capitol Hill, June 23, 2015.
Chip Somodevilla AFP/Getty
Oct. 12, 2015, 8 p.m.

With a vote on con­tro­ver­sial trade le­gis­la­tion loom­ing early next year, House Demo­crats have an ur­gent mes­sage for their cam­paign al­lies: Quit at­tack­ing your own.

“We have to stop the frat­ri­cide,” said Rep. Steve Is­rael, the former chair of the Demo­crat­ic Con­gres­sion­al Cam­paign Com­mit­tee. “It’s hard enough to go up against Shel­don Ad­el­son and the Koch broth­ers. Our mem­bers shouldn’t have to go up against Shel­don Ad­el­son, the Koch broth­ers—and [mem­bers’] friends.”

The “friends” Is­rael re­ferred to are the labor and pro­gress­ive groups that have gone after the 28 Demo­crats in the House and 13 in the Sen­ate who voted to pass Trade Pro­mo­tion Au­thor­ity in June. That meas­ure lim­its Con­gress to an up-or-down vote on the Trans-Pa­cific Part­ner­ship, a 12-na­tion trade deal that will land on Cap­it­ol Hill early next year. TPP has been a key pri­or­ity of the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion, but is op­posed by most Demo­crats.

The AFL-CIO has been among the most vo­cal op­pon­ents of the deal, run­ning ads against Demo­crat­ic sup­port­ers like Rep. Ami Be­ra and hold­ing protests in the dis­tricts of oth­ers. The group also cut off cam­paign fund­ing for Demo­crats dur­ing the TPA fight, a move os­tens­ibly aimed at fo­cus­ing re­sources on the trade battle but one that was per­ceived as an im­pli­cit threat to would-be sup­port­ers.

Mean­while, pro­gress­ive groups like Demo­cracy for Amer­ica have tried to line up primary chal­lengers to pro-trade Demo­crats. “We will not lift a fin­ger or raise a penny to pro­tect you when you’re at­tacked in 2016, we will en­cour­age our pro­gress­ive al­lies to join us in leav­ing you to rot, and we will act­ively search for op­por­tun­it­ies to primary you with a real Demo­crat,” the group’s chair, Jim Dean, said in a state­ment fol­low­ing the vote.

But many Demo­crats in the House say that ap­proach could cost their party any shot at re­tak­ing the ma­jor­ity. “We do some­times have dis­agree­ments with­in the Demo­crat­ic caucus on is­sues, but when it comes to win­ning back the House, … we need to be sin­gu­larly fo­cused,” said Rep. Dan Kildee, who heads the DCCC’s ef­forts to pro­tect vul­ner­able in­cum­bents—sev­er­al of whom voted for TPA. “The best thing for work­ing people in this coun­try and the best thing for or­gan­ized labor in this coun­try would be get­ting Demo­crats back in­to the ma­jor­ity.”

For its part, the AFL-CIO says its “at­tacks” have not been elect­or­al chal­lenges but is­sue cam­paigns de­signed to change mem­bers’ minds. Wheth­er or not those mem­bers face at­tacks dur­ing primary sea­son is up to labor lead­ers in their dis­tricts. “There’s an as­sump­tion that this is driv­en from Wash­ing­ton,” said Bill Samuel, the uni­on’s gov­ern­ment-af­fairs dir­ect­or. “The people who knock on doors and make the phone calls, … the de­cision’s go­ing to be theirs.”

He ad­ded that people will al­ways de­bate where labor should spend its re­sources. “You could make that ar­gu­ment that you should sup­port any Demo­crat, re­gard­less of how poor their vot­ing re­cord is, in or­der to make Nancy Pelosi speak­er,” he said. “I really want to make Nancy Pelosi speak­er. It’s a hard ar­gu­ment to make in a spe­cif­ic dis­trict with the con­stitu­ents of a mem­ber with a poor vot­ing re­cord.” Mem­bers who are fa­cing pres­sure after their TPA vote, Samuel  said, could go a long way to­ward re­as­sur­ing their al­lies by vot­ing against TPP.

Oth­er trade-deal op­pon­ents have been less meas­ured in their re­sponses. “It’s ab­so­lutely ab­surd to ask any­one who cares about in­come in­equal­ity … to ig­nore a very clear be­tray­al like this vote for fast-track au­thor­ity,” said Demo­cracy for Amer­ica’s Neil Sroka. “They’re liv­ing in a fanta­sy­land if they think or­gan­iz­a­tions like ours are just go­ing to ig­nore these votes.”

Sroka ad­ded that elect­or­al vic­tor­ies are hol­low if they only em­power Demo­crats who vote with the oth­er party. “Demo­crats would be best served by vot­ing like Demo­crats and ac­tu­ally stand­ing up and fight­ing for work­ing fam­il­ies,” he said. His group will be ur­ging al­lies not to give to the DCCC or any oth­er or­gan­iz­a­tions that may end up fund­ing trade sup­port­ers.

DCCC Chair­man Ben Ray Lu­jan was care­ful not to call out any Demo­crat­ic al­lies, and he said out­side groups are free to use their re­sources as they please. But he did re­mind labor that Demo­crats have been their strongest al­lies on a num­ber of polit­ic­al is­sues. “I’d en­cour­age our friends in labor that, as we look for part­ner­ships down the road and we ad­voc­ate to make sure that people get a fair wage for a hard day’s work, … those are is­sues that as Demo­crats we share with labor,” he said.

That sen­ti­ment isn’t new. In June, Minor­ity Whip Steny Hoy­er said he had “urged our friends in labor to have re­spect for the de­cisions of mem­bers.” He lis­ted off is­sues like col­lect­ive bar­gain­ing and the min­im­um wage where Demo­crats have worked to boost labor’s goals.

Even some pro­gress­ives have called for the in­fight­ing to stop. “We thought they took a wrong vote, and the con­se­quences of that vote are in their dis­trict,” said Rep. Raul Gri­jalva, who chairs the Con­gres­sion­al Pro­gress­ive Caucus. “But in terms of us ral­ly­ing around to de­feat them, we’re not in­to that. It’s a strategy that in the short term might sat­is­fy the an­ger, but in the long term doesn’t bring us any num­bers to this House.”

Of course, the Demo­crats who voted for the trade deal also be­lieve they shouldn’t be un­der at­tack. “Frankly, I think it’s mis­guided and Demo­crats should be help­ing oth­er Demo­crats,” said Rep. Mike Quigley. “It’s a los­ing game any­way, be­cause the pres­id­ent of the United States is solidly 100 per­cent with the Demo­crats who sup­por­ted him on this deal. They’ve got to worry about win­ning back the Sen­ate, try­ing to win the pres­id­ent’s race, try­ing to win back the House. And in­stead fo­cus­ing their mis­guided an­ger on fel­low Demo­crats is a ter­rible mis­take.”

Be­ra, who has faced per­haps more pres­sure than any­one, said he is still mak­ing up his mind on TPP. But he said the at­tacks against him are a mis­use of re­sources. “I al­ways think it’s bet­ter for Demo­crats to fo­cus on get­ting the House back, hold­ing on to the seats that we have and pick­ing up the seats that are in play,” he said.

Samuel said Be­ra’s case is an ex­ample of the Demo­crats who have “burned bridges” by vot­ing against the act­iv­ists who got them elec­ted. “It’s a good ex­ample of where the re­la­tion­ship is really dam­aged,” he said. “Most of our act­iv­ists would like to see the Demo­crats take back con­trol, … but they’re also really dis­ap­poin­ted in him. The re­la­tion­ship will either be re­built or it won’t.”

Ad­ded Sroka: “If Demo­crats fail to re­take the House, they need to ser­i­ously look at [trade] as one of the reas­ons they failed to do it. … If Ami Be­ra is de­feated, it’s not be­cause pro­gress­ives didn’t stand up and de­fend Ami Be­ra. It’s be­cause Ami Be­ra took a vote that makes it im­possible for any­one who cares for work­ing fam­il­ies in this coun­try to sup­port him.”

Not­ably, Rep. Debbie Wasser­man Schultz, who heads the Demo­crat­ic Na­tion­al Com­mit­tee and voted for TPA, said she has heard noth­ing about such a back­lash—an is­sue on which every oth­er mem­ber of the House seems to have an opin­ion. She said she met re­cently with labor lead­ers, in­clud­ing the AFL-CIO, without it com­ing up. “I’ve hon­estly not heard any threat what­so­ever to any Demo­crat re­lated to the trade deal,” she said. “I have a hard time com­ment­ing on something that I haven’t heard.”

Still, many of the oth­er mem­bers in her caucus say the fo­cus should be on win­ning the House—not a single trade vote. “I have com­mit­ted to mak­ing sure we win back the ma­jor­ity, and that starts with re­turn­ing in­cum­bent Demo­crats in swing dis­tricts—in­clud­ing those that I some­times dis­agree with,” Kildee said. “Ob­vi­ously, I think this is im­port­ant to labor, and I think they should take a strong po­s­i­tion. … But I think we should fo­cus on the long-term battle as well as the short-term battle.”

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