White House Gives Moderate Democrats Extra Attention on Free Trade

New Democrat Coalition gets full-court press from the administration.

With the status of President Obama's request for trade-promotion authority still murky on Capitol Hill, the White House is targeting a group of moderate House Democrats in hopes of finding support for the bill.

Trade promotion, also known as fast-track, has long been an object of skepticism among Democratic representatives; only 29 of them backed President Bill Clinton's push for the measure in 1998. This time around, much of the caucus has stayed in wait-and-see mode on the proposal, which would set parameters on trade deals negotiated by the White House but restrict congressional input on their passage to an up-or-down vote.

In recent days, Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker and U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman have been pressing lawmakers on the deal, and Froman was joined by Jeff Zients, Obama's top economic adviser, to make the case at Tuesday's meeting of the House Democratic Caucus.

The outreach also has focused on the New Democrat Coalition, a 46-member group of moderate Democrats. Zients, Pritzker, Labor Secretary Thomas Perez, and Treasury Secretary Jack Lew have all addressed the caucus on the proposal. "There's been pretty full-court press from the administration," said an aide to a moderate Democrat who has been active in trade discussions.

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."

Those issues come from a wide range of Democratic constituencies, from environmental and labor groups to workers' rights advocates. Others have concerns about currency manipulation, food safety, and access to foreign markets.

Amid all this, Rep. Rosa DeLauro has accused the administration of limiting access to the emerging TPP outlines, banning staff from reading text, and limiting the information shared to selective pieces. "It appears that the Administration wants Members to vote on fast tracking the agreement without well-staffed and reviewed information," the Connecticut Democrat said in a letter to colleagues.

"The whole issue of transparency, for most of our members, has been a real problem," she said in an interview. "Why impose restrictions on members to be able to read? "¦ We're going to see this in snippets and pieces and so forth. It's not unlike the Affordable Care Act several years ago where the public was clamoring for us to read the bill before we voted on it."

And GOP support still is not a given. Conservatives like Reps. Walter Jones and Duncan Hunter have said they oppose the measure, wary of giving the White House any more authority. At the end of last year, 19 House Republicans signed a letter calling on their colleagues not to pass TPA in the lame-duck session. But Ways and Means Chairman Paul Ryan has said he believes the GOP has the votes to get it passed, but would prefer bipartisan support.

"You can see a whole variety of situations opening up here, and that depends on the internal politics of the Republican conference," said a moderate Democratic aide. He Ryan's role in pushing for TPA could assuage many skeptical conservatives.

The problem is that Republicans, and some moderate Democrats, argue progressives have it backwards. A strong TPA, they say, needs to come first in order to set guidelines for the more specific elements of the Pacific trade deal.

"Trade-promotion authority can help set the table for those negotiating objectives," Kind said, adding that subjecting a deal to tweaking by Congress opens up many more opportunities for sticking points. "There won't be a country in the world that's going to want to sit down and negotiate with us if it's going to be subject to amendment by 535 independent contractors sitting here on Capitol Hill."