On Tuesday night, President Obama will almost certainly pledge to look for areas where he and congressional Republicans can work together. That's standard State of the Union fare. But for his fellow Democrats, the devil is in the details.
Liberals in Obama's own party will be keeping a close eye out for signs that he plans to ignore their views, or keep them away from the bargaining table, on hot-button issues like trade and taxes. Although the president has spent the last year checking off a laundry list of progressive priorities through executive action, his allies on Capitol Hill don't plan to give him a pass when he negotiates with the Hill GOP.
House Democrats are especially wary of what Obama might say on trade, where administration proposals have met with staunch liberal opposition.
Obama has been pushing congressional leaders for fast-track authority, which allows trade deals negotiated by the executive branch to move through Congress on an up-or-down vote—without the possibility of amendments or filibusters. Democrats have been reluctant to cede that authority, and many also oppose his push for the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a 12-country trade deal that the White House says will boost American exports.
After a meeting last week at the White House, both Republicans and the administration emerged citing trade as a possible area of cooperation. But if Obama plans to look across the aisle to move his agenda, Democrats say they won't let it happen silently.
"There's precedent in the House of Representatives of defeating fast-track authority," said Rep. Rosa DeLauro, one of fast-track's most vocal opponents. She cited a 1998 vote in which 171 Democrats helped kill a push to give President Clinton fast-track powers. "I don't want to give up my constitutional authority. I've never voted for fast-track, for either a Democrat or Republican president."
Her fellow progressives expressed similar thoughts. "I'm opposed to granting fast-track. I'm opposed to the treaty as it is," said Rep. Raul Grijalva. "I think there's a significant number of Democrats in the caucus, and it's a combination of us opposing it and members of the other side for reasons that I think are important to them."¦ I'm hopeful that we'll have enough to prevent the fast-track."
House Ways and Means Committee ranking member Sander Levin has also resisted reducing Congress's role in negotiations. "There are a dozen outstanding issues, important issues," he said. "And this is an important negotiation, unusual in the number of new topics that are being negotiated multilaterally. We in the Congress at this point need to really become an active partner with the administration digging into the TPP issues."
For many, the current negotiations call to mind the North American Free Trade Agreement, which they claim has cost jobs in the U.S. "We have seen previous trade deals result in American jobs being shipped overseas," said Rep. Barbara Lee, also citing a trade deal with China that hit especially hard in her home state of California. "Congress and the American people need to know that trade deals will create jobs at home, not offshore."
"This trade bill, I cannot support it," added Rep. Keith Ellison. "Nobody can explain to me why this is not a replay of NAFTA, only worse."
The outspoken progressives are likely not alone: In 2013, 151 House Democrats signed a letter pledging to block any attempts at fast-track authority. Some are optimistic those sheer numbers will help change Obama's mind. "Democrats on the Hill have not been in lockstep with the president," said Rep. Matt Cartwright, noting the president's willingness to listen and keep an open mind. "There have been instances where those of us on Capitol Hill disagreed with the president's positions and made ourselves loud, he has paid attention."¦ Unity in the caucus is what's needed to get our point across."
While trade is Democrats' deepest point of division, some are similarly worried about tax reform, which was also identified as an area of possible cooperation between the White House and Republicans. Last year, House Ways and Means Chairman Dave Camp unveiled a tax-reform plan three years in the making, only to see it quickly tossed to the wayside by his own GOP leadership. With that in mind, some Democrats are concerned that any deal capable of drawing Republican support would require too many concessions from Democrats.
"It needs to be balanced, and we will wait to see what's produced," DeLauro said. "But if this is going to be skewed in the direction the way it normally has been, the unwillingness of them to shut down special interest loopholes, but the beneficiaries are going to be the 1 percent, or .1 percent of the 1 percent—it's unacceptable."
Cartwright added that he's "very concerned" about tax reform. "I've seen no concrete evidence that there's a sense of moderation happening here on Capitol Hill," he said. He noted a plan recently put forth by Budget Committee ranking member Chris Van Hollen, one that would grant middle-class tax cuts while upping levies on Wall Street and the wealthy. "He's come up with a lot of common-sense ideas to move this nation forward," Cartwright said. "But I've seen those proposals fall flat ever since I've been here, so I won't even say I'm guardedly optimistic."
Van Hollen, who said last week that Republicans are "still very wedded to their trickle-down theory," was less willing to dismiss the possibility of bipartisan reform. "We should have a major conversation on tax policy," he said, citing corporate taxes as a potential issue for compromise. "Maybe there's an area of common ground. I would hope so."
But just because a plan is bipartisan doesn't mean it's good, Levin cautioned. "The focus really needs to be this Congress, with the involvement of the administration, digging into the tax-reform issue," he said. "And not just saying, 'Well, there's a chance for bipartisan action.' We should work on this at the congressional level. We should dig into that. I hope that happens."
Grijalva called on Obama to back up his message on income equality when he addresses the tax-reform issue. "The president, on some of his trips, talked about fairness issues, wage disparity, talked about the middle class and good-paying jobs," he said. "Part of that equation is tax reform. Quit extending these tax breaks for the upper income brackets and corporate America. If there's going to be some consistency to that message, that has to be part of it."
Added Lee: "Democrats are not going to roll over and let tax reform hurt low- and middle-income families while rewarding companies that ship jobs overseas or pay workers low wages that keep them in poverty."
On the whole, Democrats were quick to applaud Obama for his actions over the past year, from upping the minimum wage and paid sick leave for federal workers to protecting millions of undocumented immigrants from deportation and proposing two free years of community college for students. And while they pledged to have his back on that agenda, they urged him not to back down on progressive principles. Their theory: If Democrats stand together, they can pull Republicans toward the left, rather than having Obama move right.
"My expectations are that he will show the strength of that office, and by doing that, I think make the question of bipartisanship a little more of a reality here," Grijalva said. "If we can maintain [veto-sustaining] votes on key issues and the Senate does the same, then I think after a while there will be some common-ground discussions that we're not having now."
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