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With Trade Agenda at Risk, Obama Pleads with Democrats

June 12, 2015
With the vote on a razor's edge, the president dashed to Capitol Hill to personally lobby reluctant Democrats to support a bill giving him broad authority on the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

President Barack Obama headed to Congress Friday to personally lobby reluctant Democrats not to torpedo a bill to give him authority to pursue a sweeping free trade agenda.

The House of Representatives was set to vote on final passage of the so-called Trade Promotion Authority, and while Republican leaders say they have the momentum to get it across the finish line, the vote remains a toss-up.

TPA, which has already passed the Senate, would allow Obama to finalize negotiations with 11 other Pacific Rim countries on what would be the largest trade agreement ever, a massive pact with Japan, Australia, Chile, Vietnam and others encompassing some 40% of global commerce.

With the vote on a razor's edge, the president dashed to Capitol Hill in a bid to persuade Democrats, most of whom are in open revolt against granting the president powers that allow him to present a trade pact to Congress for an up-or-down vote with no chance for them to change it.

"I don't think you ever nail anything down around here. It's always moving," Obama, speaking of the vote's prospects, told reporters as he emerged from the closed-door session.

He needs a simple majority in the House, where the bulk of votes will come from rival Republicans, although roughly 20 Democrats will need to sign on for TPA to pass.

After the meeting, several Democrats insisted they will hold their ground.

"He didn't change my mind," House Democrat Gene Green said. "I'm going to vote against all of it."

Green was referring to the three trade bills getting votes Friday, including Trade Adjustment Assistance that would help U.S. workers displaced by globalization.

Angry Democrats said they felt TAA, traditionally backed overwhelmingly by their party, was being used to lure lawmakers to vote for TPA, or so-called fast-track authority.

Obama urged lawmakers to "play it straight" and not vote against worker assistance "just because you want to kill the trade agreement," Democrat Henry Cuellar told reporters.

House leaders arranged it so that worker assistance must pass before lawmakers can vote on Trade Promotion Authority.

A third vote occurs on a customs measure, a catch-all bill into which Republicans have added several of their priorities, including a provision barring trade deals from requiring Washington to address climate change, and another forbidding such pacts from loosening immigration laws.

Congressman Brad Sherman said Obama gave an "eloquent" defense of TPA, but the California Democrat said he and the caucus were not swayed.

"Obviously he thinks that this trade deal will help the American economy and help working families. The vast majority of Democrats—and 100 percent of all those organizations of working —peopledisagree," Sherman said.

In another foray into hardball politics, Obama made an unannounced stop Thursday night at the annual congressional baseball game in Washington to seek support for the measure, which labor leaders say will cost American jobs.

As Obama mingled with Democrats and Republicans, the crowd behind the Republican dugout began chanting "TPA! TPA!"

Labor Leaders Fear Job Losses

Also on Thursday, the House easily passed a trade preferences bill helping African economies.

But the overall trade package barely cleared a procedural hurdle hours later, suggesting Friday's trade votes will come down to the wire.

House Ways and Means Committee chairman Paul Ryan sought to assuage concerns about the secrecy shrouding the trade negotiations.

Writing in the Washington Examiner, Ryan stressed that TPA will force the administration to follow "specific requirements" on the Pacific Rim trade accord, known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).

"Every member of Congress will get to read the current draft of the TPP agreement. Every member will also get regular briefings on the latest state of play and even get to attend negotiating rounds in person," Ryan said.

It remained unclear whether Obama's last-minute appeal would save his trade agenda.

House Democrat Keith Ellison said Obama's emotional "hard sell" came up short.

"I was looking for him to make a clear argument why the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the ultimate trade deal, would increase wages for American workers," Ellison said.

"He said nothing of that ... It's just, 'I wouldn't hurt American workers, so if you disagree with me, you're questioning me.'"

Copyright Agence France-Presse, 2015

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