The fate of President Obama's fast-track trade bill remained uncertain Thursday afternoon even after clearing a key hurdle, as Democrats expressed growing concern with the slice of the package that helps train workers who lose their jobs as a result of a future trade deal.
The Trade Adjustment Assistance bill—a key provision for Democrats—is vital to passing Trade Promotion Authority, legislation that gives Congress and up-or-down vote on trade deals negotiated by the president over the next six years.
On a 217-212 vote, the House just barely approved a rule for debate that ties the passage of TAA to TPA in hopes of bringing more Democrats along. A handful of Democrats joined most Republicans in backing the rule, a relatively rare occurrence on what is usually a party-line vote. But the Democrats were needed because many conservative Republicans opposed the rule, feeling that they have been shut out of the process.
The final passage votes for trade legislation will now happen Friday. If TAA does not pass, TPA cannot come up for a vote, putting the president's trade bill into jeopardy and disrupting what was supposed to be a rare bipartisan moment on Capitol Hill. Many of the lawmakers who most support TAA—under normal circumstances—are opposed to the fast-track bill, and vice versa, making the combined package a complicated sell.
"Fluid is the word right now," Rep. Henry Cuellar, a Democratic trade backer, said of support for the TAA measure.
Democrats huddled at noon with White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough, Treasury Secretary Jack Lew, and Labor Secretary Thomas Perez in the White House's 11th-hour appeal to members of the president's party. Democratic leaders also allowed AFL-CIO head Richard Trumka, one of TPA's leading opponents, to make his case. Both Trumka and the administration officials faced plenty of pushback.
"It was a bit of a wrestling match "¦ not only did we require that they be in separate corners, but we actually required that they be in separate rooms before they came in," Rep. Steve Israel said.
According to the aide who was inside the closed-door meeting, Rep. Cedric Richmond told Trumka that "family fights should be internal" and that he was "troubled by the tactics" used by labor groups against Democratic members on trade.
Rep. Keith Ellison, who coleads the Progressive Caucus, was not swayed by the White House's message on TAA. "It's only because of our affection for that particular program that they're using it to get us to the only thing they care about, which is Trade Promotion Authority," he said. "You don't get three Cabinet secretaries in here to convince Democrats to vote for something that they always vote for unless you have an ulterior motive."
In order to pass the fast-track bill, more than two dozen Democrats will likely need to vote "aye" to offset the opposition of some Republicans.
"It's hand-to-hand right now inside," said Rep. Ron Kind, the chairman of the New Democrat Coalition and a supporter of the trade package. "I tell ya, we're getting much better feedback on from members in support of TAA, and I think the administration has made a very strong and compelling case. [Leadership] have been explaining what the details are and the fix that was made and I give [House Minority Leader Nancy] Pelosi a lot of credit being able to find resolution to this."
Kind's progressive opponents agreed with his analysis of the meeting's intensity, though not on TAA's momentum. Rep. Peter DeFazio said the White House envoys were received "warmly," a characterization dripping with sarcasm. "There was very outspoken concern about what they're trying to jam down our throats," he said. "If there's only 50 Republicans [for TAA], they're a long way from passing it right now."
At the Democratic meeting, according to an aide who was in the room, Pelosi, who does not drink alcohol, held up a soda and said: "Once a year, I have a Coca-Cola. And today, I needed a drink."
Obama called Speaker John Boehner to discuss the trade measure Thursday, and White House press secretary Josh Earnest said at his briefing that the administration was making an "aggressive" case to Hill Democrats and warned against letting TAA fail.
"If trade adjustment assistance doesn't pass this week, it's very unlikely to pass before the end of the year. and what that means is that if you are a member of Congress and you vote against trade adjustment assistance, you are adding your name to the death certificate of trade adjustment assistance. because it will go away," Earnest said. "We have a very strong case to make about why Democrats and Republicans should be able to act in bipartisan fashion to make sure that trade adjustment doesn't expire."
Separating the two items was supposed to be a major selling point for Democrats who have been calling on a TAA package, but many remained concerned that the current package was not enough to support workers displaced by trade deals. Many progressive Democrats now are expected to vote against TAA, meaning Republicans will have to find more votes for that part of the package on their side of the aisle.
House GOP aides pointed out that the procedural maneuver was designed by Pelosi herself, and Republicans are annoyed that more Democrats aren't stepping up to help as a result. House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, who hasn't revealed his position on the fast-track bill, said he would support the TAA measure but wasn't whipping votes for it.
An aide to a progressive member, requesting anonymity to discuss strategy, estimated that more than 70 Democrats would oppose the TAA measure because they've not been persuaded by the way Republican leaders addressed proposed Medicare cuts in the overall package. "We think this thing goes down," the aide predicted.
Other progressives noted that Democrats are very aware of the danger of voting for Medicare cuts, even as part of a procedural move that would not be carried into effect. "People who vote for TAA tomorrow will be hanging out there having voted to cut Medicare because the Africa bill isn't going to pass the Senate by tomorrow," DeFazio said. "Then you're John Kerry, and you're explaining why you voted to cut it before you voted not to cut it. "¦ Then [Republicans] can legitimately, just like they did with Obamacare, run an ad against you saying you voted to cut Medicare."
Meanwhile, some Democrats are suggesting that the progressives now opposing TAA are less concerned about the merits than using it as a wedge to kill TPA. "Suddenly to have this become a big issue is entirely a red herring," Rep. Gerry Connolly said. "There is an active strategy to use TAA, despite the hardship it will cause and the risk that we kill the program permanently, in order to get at TPA. And there are a number of colleagues who just spoke who made it clear that they're not going to vote for TPA, but they find that a very odious strategy."
Among those pro-TAA, anti-TPA members is Israel. "There's a strategy that's been suggested that if you want to kill Trade Promotion Authority you should drive a stake through Trade Adjustment Assistance," he said. "I think that's a foolish strategy. I'm against Trade Promotion Authority, but I'm not willing to drive a stake through helping workers who have been displaced in order to kill a bad trade deal."
Rep. Tom Cole, who is on the GOP whip team and supports TPA, said the intensity of the Democratic opposition was still a major force working against the trade deal.
"Because you have such intense opposition, they would actually destroy a program that liberals and labor unions have traditionally been supportive of in a desperate effort to stop TPA."
In an effort preserve the delicate trade deal, Republicans were even asking members of their own party to support TAA in order to get the TPA bill across the finish line.
"They are in there working this hard," says Tom Rooney, a Republican from Florida. "This is one of those where the people who are adamantly opposed have been blessed and released. It is the people who are on the fence that the whips are gravitating toward."
Cole responded to opposition on his side as well, arguing that Republicans who wanted to use trade as a place to force the Speaker's hand on a separate issue—the Export-Import Bank—were not helping their cause.
"It is inappropriate to try and blackmail your own team," Cole said. "That is a very juvenile tactic that rips the team apart instead of bringing it together."
Several members of the Freedom Caucus, a conservative coalition in the House of Representatives, voted against the rule allowing TPA to be tied to TAA, which they view as capitulation to Democrats.
Rep. John Fleming, a conservative from Louisiana who is part of the House Freedom Caucus, said there was a lot of "disgruntlement."
"There is a lot of discontent within the freedom caucus," says John Flemming. "All the amendments that I can think of...in one way or another are to get more Democrat votes. Meanwhile, conservatives in the Republican base are being shut out."
Rep. Mick Mulvaney said he had an amendment that, if tacked onto the bill, would have turned 20 to 25 conservative TPA opponents—including himself—into supporters. The amendment would have required Congress to give the president permission to move forward with fast-track at various checkpoints.
"I'm very confident that would have been a margin of victory," the South Carolina Republican said. "The frustrating thing to me is instead of making what is simply a procedural acquiescence to Republicans, they went off and gave the Democrats money."
Foes of the package expressed confidence that momentum was on their side.
"There are just so many cross pressures that it is starting to fall in on itself," said Jason Stanford, a spokesman for the Coalition to Stop Fast Track.
This article has been updated.
Rachel Roubein and Rebecca Nelson contributed to this article