The Democrats' Tea-Party Moment

The trade fight is the latest skirmish in a broader intraparty war.

WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 20: Protesters take part in a 'Don't Trade Our Future' march organized by the group Campaign for America's Future April 20, 2015 in Washington, DC. The event was part of the Populism 2015 Conference which is conducting their conference with the theme 'Building a Movement for People and the Planet.' (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images) (National Journal)

House progressives may have just had their tea-party moment.

They went toe-to-toe Friday with their own president, the business community, and moderates of all stripes—and they won big.

In overwhelming numbers, Democrats torpedoed a bill that would have moved President Obama closer to the landmark trade deal he's been seeking. And they did so hours after he visited Capitol Hill to make a personal appeal to their caucus.

"It's more than 2-to-1," said a giddy Rep. Alan Grayson, watching the vote. "That's incredible. Nobody expected that."

The trade drama was only the latest skirmish in a broader intraparty war, with organized labor and economic populists such as Sen. Elizabeth Warren on one side, and a dwindling corps of business- and Wall Street-friendly Democrats on the other. Increasingly, the political momentum and passion within the party is moving toward the first group.

Only 40 Democrats voted for the Trade Adjustment Assistance bill, a program normally supported by their party but one it was willing to vote down to kill the Trade Promotion Authority with which it was coupled. The 144 Democrats who voted against it found House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi among their number after her late announcement that she would oppose the bill.

The stunning victory for trade opponents came after months of all-out lobbying from both sides, and leaves trade's path forward in Congress murky. What is clear is that progressives in Congress have no fear of defying Obama—and some think their party's future lies with those aligned with their cause.

On the right, the tea-party movement was fueled in part by the reaction of outraged conservatives to President Bush's Troubled Asset Relief Program in 2008 and Obama's mortgage relief plan in 2009. That movement has thrived on bucking the GOP party establishment and encouraging aggressive primary challenges against Republicans deemed too centrist.

Now some groups on the left are deploying similarly apocalyptic rhetoric. Jim Dean, the chairman of Democracy for America, warned Democrats before Friday's votes that if they back trade bills, "we will encourage our progressive allies to join us in leaving you to rot, and we will actively search for opportunities to primary you with a real Democrat."

Rep. Raul Grijalva, cochair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, saw the vote as a message to Democrats' progressive allies. "I see it as a big moment for the traditional and the future coalition, which is the environmental movement, labor, health," he said. "I think it's a big moment for the coalition bringing seniors back into the fold. "¦ It tips the dynamics. It's a big moment for the old coalition, but it's a huge potential for the coalition that Obama forged." He noted the irony of that coalition coming together to buck the leader who brought it together.

Rep. Barbara Lee said despite the President's lobbying, Democrats voted on principle. "I think the members of the caucus are reflecting the aspirations of their constituents and the country," she said. "This is important for Democrats in general to show who we are and what our values are. We stand on the side of people aspiring and working hard just to get into the middle class, on behalf of those who are low-income, on behalf of the middle class."

Progressives were wary of casting their victory as a personality clash with a President they admire, and equally unwilling to declare it a long-term bellwether of their sway over the more moderate members of their caucus. But some vented their frustrations at the administration's approach. "Basically the President tried to both guilt people and then impugn their integrity," Rep. Peter DeFazio said.

DeFazio was referring to Obama's "play it straight" message to the caucus, which insinuated that those opposed to TAA were doing so only as a means to kill TPA—not on the merits of the actual program. Progressives insisted that they had serious objections to the bill and voted against it due to those shortcomings. "On the merits, I'm voting against it all because it's a bad deal no matter what," Rep. Mark Pocan said. "Playing it straight is making sure you're fighting for American jobs and American wages."

Rep. Donna Edwards, a progressive who's running for Senate in Maryland, said the vote was not a victory for her political movement, but for Democrats of all stripes adhering to their core values. "It's not so much about who's a winner and a loser, it's about whether workers are going to be winners, whether the environment is going to be a winner," she said. "This was a very encouraging vote for us, but we still have a lot of work to do. These are bedrock principles and values of our party, and to me this vote today made perfect sense."

The House's most vocal TPA opponent, Rep. Rosa DeLauro, wasn't ready to declare Obama's trade agenda dead, but said she was ready to blow off some steam after months of fighting the issue. "I hope I'm going home, I hope I'm going out to dinner tonight with my husband, and I hope I'm gonna have a fair amount to drink," she said.

While progressives took their victory lap, trade supporters were lamenting their caucus's rejection of the President—and its implications for future elections. "The more we are in the minority, the fewer seats we have, the more power the progressives have," Rep. Mike Quigley said. "When we lose elections, we don't lose them, the Blue Dogs are the ones that lose, the New Dems are the ones that lose, because those are centrist seats. "¦ The fewer seats we have as Democrats, the more influence the Progressive Caucus has, which ironically, with all due respect, drives us further to the left, making it harder for us to win the centrist seats."

Rep. Steve Israel, who voted in favor of TAA, expressed frustration after the vote. "This past two hours hasn't been among our finest two hours," he said. On Thursday, Israel called it a "foolish strategy" to oppose TAA just to kill TPA, despite his own opposition to TPA.

After watching Pelosi—with whom he has long been an ally—do just that, Israel was more measured with his words, but made clear just who he believed had swayed the caucus. "This morning the President alluded to climate change, but I don't believe that one issue swayed votes," he said. "I believe that when Leader Pelosi announced that she was voting against Trade Adjustment Assistance, that did sway votes. When the President came into the caucus this morning, for undecided members, I think he made a persuasive case. When Leader Pelosi announced that she was voting against TAA, for undecided members it sealed the deal."

Some raised a concern that Republicans would bring back TPA separately (it passed the House narrowly after the TAA vote, but can't move forward on its own due to the bills' procedural structure), leaving TAA to die. Only 86 Republicans voted for TAA, many of whom likely did so in an attempt to save TPA. But Pocan and DeLauro said they had received assurances from Democratic senators that they would not allow a clean TPA bill to move on its own.

For all the pressure members faced within their own caucus, lobbying from outside the Hill was equally forceful. The AFL-CIO cut off campaign contributions to Democrats in order to devote more resources to fighting TPA. Progressive groups made threats of their own.

Meanwhile, the White House ramped up its own lobbying efforts, promising to aid any Democrats threatened with a primary challenge. Pocan said members had heard from nearly every member of Obama's Cabinet. "You name the secretary," he said. "If there's an a, e, i, o or u in their name, they called."

Ultimately, the progressives won out.

Ben Geman and Rachel Roubein contributed to this article