Trade Fight Leaves Democrats Without a Leader

Democrats don't appear to be following Obama, Pelosi, or anyone else.

When it comes to the most significant free trade deal in decades, the Democratic party is leaderless.

That much was clear Friday after House Democrats sunk the precursor to a fast-track trade measure hours after huddling with President Obama, his chief of staff, and the labor secretary in the basement of the Capitol to discuss one of the administration's top priorities this year.

Democrats wouldn't follow Obama's lead. But it's also not clear they followed House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi in bringing down the measure known as Trade Adjustment Assistance. Though she announced at the last minute that she was voting against TAA, she personally negotiated the details of it with Speaker John Boehner.

And Democrats aren't following Hillary Clinton, their overwhelming frontrunner to succeed Obama, either. She hasn't taken a position on the trade bills.

"This is almost all 'everybody decide for himself,' said Rep. Jim McDermott of Washington. "We all have different districts, we all have different constituencies, we have got different careers, we got there in different ways."

"These are big votes," he added. "They are not ones where you are going to make me or convince me that I am going to do something else."

The bill would have sent to the president a package that included a Democratic sweetener, a TAA bill to help those who lose their jobs as a result of expanded trade. But it failed resoundingly—126 to 302—as the vast majority of anti-trade Democrats knew that the House could then send to the president the key fast-track authority, which would grant the administration greater leverage in trade negotiations by limiting congressional debate to an up-or-down vote without amendments. The bills would have helped the administration strike the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a 12-nation pact, in the months ahead.

The vote split the House Democratic leadership, exposing the fault lines between moderates who believe free trade benefits the economy and progressives with major environmental and labor concerns, among others. Some Democrats, including New York Rep. Steve Israel, saw the vote as another example in which Pelosi "sealed the deal" for undecided members; she ended her months-long neutrality just before the vote in a 15-minute floor speech announcing her opposition.

"I think the leader is the leader," said Rep. Rosa DeLauro, one of the trade package's most vociferous opponents. "She's always influential."

But others said she wasn't the arm-twister of years past and instead merely was the keen observer of an increasingly progressive caucus. Her allies in leadership, including Reps. Xavier Becerra and Chris Van Hollen, said they found out she was going to vote "no" with them during her floor speech. And the leadership didn't whip votes one way or another.

Indeed, some Republicans and administration officials were hopeful that she would actually vote "yes" on TAA, as she helped strike the deal with the GOP leadership to structure the votes and find how the bills would be paid for. In the past few months, she had helped the administration set up meetings between Democratic members and Cabinet officials pressing hard for TPA. Even in her floor speech, she referenced how she grew up in Baltimore—home of the "famous Clipper ships"—and represented San Francisco, a city "built on trade."

Yet Pelosi's concerns on transparency, labor rights, and the environment outweighed any perceived benefits and she helped deal a stinging, final rebuke to the president with her ballot. How many others she brought along with her is an open question—though it appears unlikely that she truly tipped the scales.

"I think when you come out that late, it doesn't make much of a difference," said Rep. John Delaney, one of the few Democratic members to advance the trade package this week. "By then, people had formulated their options."

"I viewed it as her bill," he added. "She made it a much better deal."

Republicans took the opportunity to underline the differences between the administration and their Democratic allies in Congress. Rep. Patrick McHenry, the deputy Republican whip, said it was "disconcerting" that Pelosi would "poke the finger in the president's eye."

"The fact that this ends with the Democrats dealing a rebuke to the president is shocking," he added. "The pressure is now on the Democrats to resolve this issue amongst themselves. We've done our part."

When the Senate's progressive wing flared and defeated a similar procedural vote last month, the headlines quickly questioned if the Democratic leadership—which all oppose Obama here—had stamped out his trade agenda. The rebellion lasted one day before a compromise was forged. But even if something similar emerges (already, Pelosi has said the prospects for passage would "greatly increase" after completing work on a highway bill) and the House next week finds the votes for TAA and TPA, the party's leadership gap will linger.

As for Clinton, she has kept silent on whether she backs TPA. When asked Friday if she would have been able to sway House Democrats, White House press secretary Josh Earnest said it's "entirely possible."

"She is obviously a significant figure in the Democratic Party," he said. "And people care a lot about what she has to say. But she's focused on running her campaign right now and is not focused on whipping votes in the House of Representatives, one way or the other. And that means that she has got her priorities straight right now."

Ben Geman, Jason Plautz, and Alex Brown contributed to this article