A measure to give President Barack Obama fast-track authority in global trade talks failed in the House Friday afternoon, torpedoed by a revolt within his own party in spite of his own 11th-hour trip to Capitol Hill in a last-ditch effort to salvage it.
The fast-track bill itself effectively went down in defeat, even though it narrowly passed the House, with 28 Democrats backing it. But because a related bill failed and the two had been required to pass as a package, the measure effectively went down in defeat.
The measures failed minutes after Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi promised to oppose them, saying lawmakers should "slow this down" to win stronger protections for U.S. workers and the environment, despite the president's personal appeal.
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Pelosi had been seen as a silent ally to Obama and Republicans running the House in promoting Obama's trade agenda. But she kept her position secret until the end of Friday's debate, and made clear that she's open to supporting future trade legislation.
Earlier, cheers had greeted the president as he strode into a meeting that could make or break a key second-term priority. But it was converts he needed to assure success of a bill to let him complete global trade deals that Congress could approve or reject but not change.
Asked on his way back to the White House if he had nailed down the support he needed, Obama replied, "I don't think you ever nail anything down around here. It's always moving."
As the two votes approached, several Democrats quoted the president as urging lawmakers to "play it straight" on the first of them. That was an appeal to support retraining assistance for workers who lose their jobs as a result of foreign trade — even if that support leads to ultimate passage of the entire trade bill, which many of them strongly oppose.
Ironically, as the showdown neared, gaining a majority for the retraining funds, normally a Democratic priority, emerged as even tougher than for the trade negotiating authority itself.
"Basically the president tried to both guilt people and then impugn their integrity," said Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., one of the most outspoken opponents of the legislation.
Another Democrat, Rep. Steve Cohen of Tennessee, said before the vote that Obama had told Democrats that "his whole philosophy, life, everything he's done has been to help people. And he thinks he's doing that with this trade agreement."
Business groups generally favored the measure. But strong opposition by organized labor carried at least an implicit threat to the re-election of any Democrat who votes in the bill's favor.
The debate and vote are certain to reverberate in next year's presidential election as well. Most Republican contenders favor the trade bill. Among Democrats, Hillary Clinton is uncommitted, despite calls from presidential rival Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, an opponent of the measure, to take a position.
The president's hastily arranged visit to Capitol Hill marked a bid to stave off a humiliating defeat at the hands of his own party.
He met privately first with Pelosi, who at that point remained publicly uncommitted on the measure. She and numerous fellow Democrats met privately after Obama's departure back to the White House.
Obama's visit relegated debate on the House floor almost to the status of a sideshow.
"Is America going to shape the global economy, or is it going to shape us?" said Rep. Paul Ryan, the Wisconsin Republican who is head of the House Ways and Means Committee and a GOP pointman on an issue that scrambled the normal party alignment in divided government.
But Rep. Sander Levin, D-Mich., countered that the legislation heading toward a showdown vote included "no meaningful protections whatever against currency manipulation" by some of America's trading partners, whose actions he said have "ruined millions of middle class jobs."
Democratic Rep. Barbara Lee of California, an opponent of the legislation, said Obama's appeal "didn't convince me. It may have convinced other members."
Other presidents have had the authority Obama seeks, which is dubbed "fast track." The White House wants the legislation as it works to wrap up a round of talks with 11 Pacific Area countries.
The same measure included a renewal of assistance for workers who lose their jobs as a result of global trade. Normally, that is a Democratic priority, but in this case, Levin and other opponents of the measure mounted an effort to kill the aid package, as a way of toppling the entire bill.
The move caught the GOP off-guard. House Republicans, already in the awkward position of allying themselves with Obama, found themselves being asked by their leaders to vote for a worker retraining program that most have long opposed as wasteful. Many were reluctant to do so, leaving the fate of the entire package up in the air, and Obama facing the prospect of a brutal loss — unless he can eke out what all predict would be the narrowest of wins.
"If we have to pass something that's a Democratic ideal with all Republicans to get the whole thing to go," said Rep. Tom Rooney, R-Fla., "we could be in trouble."
Business groups like the Chamber of Commerce crave the deal; labor unions are ardently opposed, pointing to job and wage losses from earlier trade pacts opponents say never lived up to the hype from previous administrations.
Those colliding interests have produced unusual alliances on Capitol Hill, with House Republicans working to help a president they oppose on nearly every other issue, and most Democrats working against him.