WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama’s last-minute trip to Capitol Hill on Friday to press Democrats for support on a major trade bill fell flat as the U.S. House – backed by a bipartisan trio of New Mexico lawmakers – overwhelmingly defeated the legislation.
The House voted 302-126 to scuttle a bill that would have given Obama “fast-track” Trade Promotion Authority and paved the way to approval of the controversial Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal. Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, who had not taken a position on the fast-track bill for weeks, announced her opposition shortly before Friday’s vote and urged her Democratic colleagues to help defeat the bill.
Reps. Ben Ray Luján and Michelle Lujan Grisham, both New Mexico Democrats, had voiced their opposition to the bill weeks before the vote and held firm to that position, voting against the legislation on Friday.
Democratic Sens. Martin Heinrich and Tom Udall of New Mexico both voted against the trade bill last month. Meanwhile, Rep. Steve Pearce, the New Mexico delegation’s only Republican, who had been undecided on the legislation, also voted “no” on Friday.
“While I strongly support free trade agreements to decrease our nation’s trade deficit and promote U.S. manufacturing globally, I do not believe the fast-track bill today provided the guarantees needed,” Pearce said. “The (bill) missed significant principles that need to be included … like competitive currency standards, fair trading practices, and including the opinion of the American people.”
The vote left the trade measure in deep limbo, with House Republicans and the White House vowing to regroup over the weekend, possibly massage the legislation and try again as soon as next week.
“This isn’t over yet,” Republican Rep. Paul Ryan, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee and a supporter of the measure, told reporters after the vote.
Josh Earnest, the White House spokesman, agreed.
“Our work is not done yet,” Earnest told reporters at the White House, comparing Friday’s House vote to a temporary setback in the Senate that was followed by the trade bill’s passage last month.
The pivotal vote on Friday came on a portion of the legislation to renew federal aid for workers who lose their jobs through imports. That is normally a Democratic priority, but in this case, rank-and-file party members saw its defeat as a way to scuttle the entire legislation. As a result, only 40 Democrats voted for it, and 144 were opposed. Republicans broke 158-86 against it.
A second roll call followed on the trade negotiating powers themselves, and the House approved that measure 219-211. But under the rules in effect, the overall legislation, previously approved by the Senate, could not advance to the White House unless both halves were agreed to. That made the day’s events something less than a permanent rejection of the legislation.
Republicans command a majority in the House, and Speaker John Boehner and the GOP leadership worked with Obama to try to pass the legislation. But there were many defections among Republicans unwilling to expand the president’s authority and not nearly enough Democrats supporting him for the bill to prevail.
The outcome was also a triumph for organized labor, which had lobbied lawmakers furiously to oppose the measure that union officials warned would lead to the loss of thousands of American jobs.
“The debate over fast track (authority) so far has been a marvelous contrast to the corporate money and disillusionment that normally mark American politics today,” said AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka after the vote. “This was truly democracy in action – millions of people exercising their free rights to inform their elected representatives.”
Obama has been criticized for not reaching out to Capitol Hill more often, but when he did on Friday – meeting with House Democrats for about 45 minutes behind closed doors – he didn’t get the results he had hoped for.
“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.
Business groups, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, generally favor the measure. But strong opposition by organized labor carries at least an implicit threat to the re-election of any Democrat who votes in the bill’s favor.
Most Republican contenders favor the trade bill. Among Democrats, Hillary Clinton is uncommitted, despite calls from presidential rival Vermont Sen. Bernard Sanders, an opponent of the measure, to take a position.
Rep. Ben Ray Luján, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said the bill defeated Friday would have cut Congress out of the deal-making process.
“I have long voiced my opposition to fast-track authority that would limit Congress’ ability to ensure that any trade agreement addresses critical concerns that impact hardworking families in New Mexico,” he said. “Congress must have a meaningful role in a process that will have a significant impact on workers, jobs, and the economy, and I oppose this path forward that excludes Congress from playing such a role.”
Lujan Grisham also objected to restricting congressional and public input.
“New Mexico workers deserve a voice in these trade deals that have a direct impact on the state’s economy,” she said. We need to have real oversight, which is impossible when there is no transparency and trade deals are negotiated in secret.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.