Members of the media who are on the White House press list received an email Thursday night informing them that “the motorcade made an unscheduled departure at 7:49 p.m. to an undisclosed location.”
The “motorcade,” of course, referred to President Obama and his extensive security entourage. Reporters soon discovered that the president had gone to Nationals Park to attend the annual congressional baseball game. They also soon learned that the president hadn’t suddenly acquired an interest in watching members of Congress play ball with each other. He was there to lobby them on a very specific piece of legislation.
On Friday morning, the White House staff concluded that more presidential intervention was urgently needed and at 9:32 a.m., the president made a rare, unscheduled trip to Capitol Hill to personally plead his case.
The background for this drama was a controversial free trade deal named the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the centerpiece of his economic agenda and a plan that President Obama has spent his entire presidency pursuing.
Aimed at removing barriers and establishing rules on investment and commerce, the deal — if reached — would affect 40 percent of the global economy; it would bring together 12 countries, ranging from traditional allies such as the United States, Australia, Canada, Japan and Mexico, with less likely partners such as Brunei and Vietnam.
What makes this political battle particularly bizarre is that it is the Republicans — who are traditionally pro trade — who are supporting the deal. Members of the president’s party, cognizant of the fact that this bill is fiercely opposed by various consumer groups and organized labor, are generally wary of it.
The Obama administration insists it would be harder to win concessions from foreign countries at the bargaining table if they knew that Congress could change the terms of a trade pact. So the Obama administration is seeking “fast-track authority,” that would prevent members of Congress from filibustering or offering amendments to the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
Fast-track authority passed 62–37 in the Senate last month after GOP leaders won over some Democrats by coupling the measure with one to extend funding for retraining American workers hurt by foreign competition, a program known as Trade Adjustment Assistance.
But in the House, Democrats balked at a plan to pay for worker training with what they viewed as cuts from Medicare. After negotiations this week between Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), House GOP leaders responded by splitting the measure into two bills, one for fast-track and another for the retraining funds. They also agreed to find an alternative funding source for the retraining program.
But House Democrats were unconvinced that the Senate would approve the new retraining funds, and many seized on the tactical opening to defeat the entire package.
When President Obama wrapped up his dramatic personal appeal in Congress, reporters asked him about the pending vote.
“I don’t think you ever nail anything down around here. It’s always moving,” he said.
He was right. It was moving all right — but in the opposite direction to the one he sought. Some Democrats were actually offended by the president’s tactics.
“Basically, the president tried to both guilt people and impugn their integrity,” was how Rep. Pete DeFazio (D-Ore.) saw it. “There were a number of us who were insulted by the approach.”
Hours after the president’s dramatic appeal, the House voted 302–126 against the worker retraining measure, dealing the president a humiliating defeat.
Making a complex issue even more complicated, the House also took a symbolic vote approving fast-track authority itself on a vote of 219–211, but since the Senate had combined the measures, without the worker retraining, the fast track bill can’t become law, either.
Trying to put the best possible face on this fiasco, White House press secretary Josh Earnest dismissed Friday’s outcome as a “procedural snafu,” claiming that “[t]hese kinds of entanglements are endemic to the House of Representatives.” House Republicans plan to hold another vote, hoping they can get enough members on both sides of the aisle to change their minds.
Without commenting on the actual bill, the decision by the House Democrats to stand up to their president on a matter their constituents feel so passionately about, is refreshing and praiseworthy.
When the drafters of the United States constitution provided for “checks and balances” between the executive and legislative branch, this was what they had in mind.
In recent days, a flurry of media reports have indicated that American negotiators have granted an ever-increasing number of key concessions to the Iranians as they seek to reach a deal over the future of Teheran’s nuclear program. If these reports are even partially true, it would mean that the Iran deal is even more dangerous than previously imagined.
In order to prevent a bad agreement with Iran from becoming a reality, a significant number of Democrats will have to join Republicans in standing up to the president. Hopefully, Friday’s vote will embolden more and more Democrats to reject pressure from the White House and reject a bad deal with Iran when the time arrives to vote on that agreement.