Updated June 12, 2015, 2:40 p.m.
House Democrats may have cast the fatal votes that killed President Obama’s trade agenda on Friday morning, but the party responsible for its demise was a coalition whose numbers have diminished for decades and whose political clout has been questioned: the American labor movement.
The Obama administration believed it had the votes necessary to pass the most-contentious piece of its trade legislation—Trade Promotion Authority—that would allow the president to finalize agreements with Pacific Rim nations and the European Union. But the labor movement was not prepared to give up. Instead, it caught the administration off guard by launching a surprise attack on legislation known as Trade Adjustment Assistance, a program designed to help workers displaced by trade and one which Democrats—and organized labor—have overwhelmingly supported in the past. Just 40 House Democrats—less than one-quarter of the caucus—voted for the bill, which fell in a landslide, 302-126. By defeating the aid measure, the labor movement rendered the administration’s careful work rounding up votes for Trade Promotion Authority largely irrelevant.
As the margin of the defeat became clear, some Democrats scrambled to change their votes to 'No,' a measure of just how unpopular the measure had become. Republicans moved quickly to hold a vote on Trade Promotion Authority, but even though the bill received a majority of votes, it will not go to the president's desk because it does not match the Senate-passed package. GOP leaders could try to bring the assistance bill back for another vote next week, and the White House tried to downplay Friday’s loss as a momentary stumble. Press Secretary Josh Earnest referred to it as a “procedural snafu”—the same phrase he used to describe the trade package’s initial failure in the Senate earlier this spring. “It’s deja vu all over again,” Earnest said. Yet while the Senate had first fallen short by only a few votes, Obama would have to flip dozens of House Democrats to get it passed.