Republicans are seen as far more supportive of free trade, but some Democrats say they are skeptical that the party opposing Obama's authority at every turn on immigration will give him more authority on trade. So getting buy-in from moderate Democrats could be key.
"We're going to continue to play a very important role in how do we shape a strong bipartisan agenda for trade as we move forward in this session," said Rep. Ron Kind, the New Democrats' chairman. "There's no question the administration's stepped up too, from the president on down, personally engaging individual members of Congress about the importance of this and the timing as well."
Another aide, who works for a progressive Democrat who opposes TPA, said the measure is likely to pass with or without Democratic support. But, he added, the administration would rather not ram the legislation through on a party-line vote that relies on the GOP. "The White House sees that they need to make the case to Democrats," he said.
Still, many Democrats have deep reservations about TPA, and earning substantial support—even from moderates—could be an uphill battle for the White House. Democratic Rep. Gerry Connolly of Virginia, one of Kind's vice-chairs, said trade votes carry political risk and backing them will not insulate Democrats from being targeted by pro-business campaign groups.
Meanwhile, several progressive groups have threatened to primary Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden in Oregon for his role in helping lead the Senate's TPA negotiations (the challenger they've called for, Rep. Peter DeFazio, says he won't run). And just a year and a half ago, 151 House Democrats signed a letter pledging not to back an "outdated" fast-track agreement.
Despite all this, much of the caucus has held its fire on Obama's forthcoming proposal, and party leaders say they want to give Obama a chance. "We're hopeful that the administration will take steps that will allow a significant number of the caucus to get to yes," House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer said last month. "We're working on those. Hopefully the administration will be able to get many to a path to yes, but that's yet to be determined."
A House Democratic leadership aide added that Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi is "hoping we can get to some place where we can get to 150 Democrats for a bill." Still, he noted, "that's gonna take a lot of work."
The problem, skeptics say, is that—even with its increased outreach—it hasn't made that case. Many Democrats say they want to see detailed outlines of a Trans-Pacific Partnership—a pending trade deal with 12 Pacific Rim countries—before voting on the TPA measure that would be used to push it through Congress.
Earlier this year, Ways and Means ranking member Sander Levin released an eight-page outline of what he's hoping to see in the Pacific trade deal, issues he says Obama will need to address to get Democrats on board. "I laid out the issues that remain outstanding, the major issues in TPP," Levin said in an interview. "I've made it clear, and I speak for lots of Democrats, that we should not give up our leverage at this point when there are so many outstanding issues."