Taking a page from the Tea Party playbook, Democratic activists vowed to primary candidates who back legislation on trade deals. At issue are the trade deals President Obama is trying to fast track through Congress: The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), The Transatlantic Investment Partnership (T-TIP) and the Trade In Services Agreement (TiSA). Looks like the tactic worked.
The House voted today on measures designed to give President Obama the fast track authority he needs to pass the trade deals that would affect over half of the world’s economy. What was handed to the president was a stunning defeat.
Broadly favored by Republicans, although not universally (some fear the additional power given to the president), the trade deals have been a hard sell with most Democrats who see them as job killers. However, a program floated to lure the Democratic vote – Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA), which would retrain workers who lose their jobs as a result of the trade deals – went down in flames with a vote of 302-126. Democrats on the fence saw it as an essential component and said they wouldn’t back any trade deals without it. Republicans weren’t enamored of it, viewing it as welfare (isn’t it interesting that they have no problem subsidizing large corporations but disdain the idea of retraining workers whose jobs have been shipped overseas?), but swallowed their dislike of the measure in order to get enough Democrats on board to fast track the trade deals. In the end, the tactic didn’t work, and Democrats voted against it in order to derail the Trade Promotion Authority, which they hated. A large number of Republicans voted against it as well.
By defeating the aid measure, the assault by the AFL-CIO neutered the president’s carefully crafted plan to round up votes for Trade Promotion Authority. The TPA did pass by a margin of 219-211, mostly on party lines, but since it is tied to the TAA, is has been rendered moot.
Prior to today’s vote, Democracy for America, the group started by former Democratic Party Chairman Howard Dean issued a strong warning to Democrats. Headed these days by the former governor of Vermont’s brother, Jim Dean, the group promised to primary any candidate who backs the deals.
Dean said, “Ahead of today’s votes, we wanted to be very clear to Democratic members of Congress: If you vote for either Medicare-cutting Trade Adjustment Assistance legislation or Fast Track Authority for the job-killing Trans-Pacific Partnership, we will not lift a finger or raise a penny to protect you when you’re attacked in 2016. 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.”
He was referring to the $700 million that would be cut from Medicare to help finance the retraining of displaced workers. In answer to the complaint, Republicans offered another measure that would restore the cuts, but Dean and DFA said that won’t do it. Anything that helps to pass fast track, either for Obama or for the next president, will trigger the primary challenges.
“These primaries could happen next year or they could happen in election cycles to come, but, make no mistake, today’s vote to cut Medicare and fast track the destruction of American jobs will be remembered and will either haunt you or make you a hero, “ said Dean.
It is important to understand exactly what fast track is and why there has been such a push back against it. Trade Promotion Authority gives the president the ability to negotiate trade deals. Once fast track authority is passed, there is no debate, no opportunity to filibuster and no amendments can be added. The bill in its entirely would get a straight up and down vote. In the current Republican controlled Congress, it would pass without problem.
The trade agreements on the table are considered classified. Members of Congress can read them, but they cannot take notes or copies of the contents. Outspoken members who have spent time digesting the agreements have serious concerns with provisions that give multinational corporations the right to sue countries in which they invest for violating their property rights. They also have reservations about worker protections, both at home and in the countries where American jobs will be sent.
This new threat from a powerful Democratic organization here at home may be the end of the fast track debate once and for all. It may also be the end of the entire trade measure. Considering the difficulties encountered from the beginning, mustering enough support for another go may not be possible.