WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Nancy Pelosi, the leader of the Democrats in the House of Representatives, spent much of this year saying she was trying to find “a path to yes” on the Pacific Rim trade deal sought by President Barack Obama, her close ally.
But on Friday, with legislation central to Obama’s pact coming before the House, Pelosi revealed she would vote “no,” joining other Democrats in handing the president a stunning defeat and leaving his trade agenda in limbo.
“When Leader Pelosi announced that she was voting against TAA, for undecided members it sealed the deal,” said Representative Steve Israel, a senior House Democrat.
The dramatic vote on the Trade Adjustment Assistance worker aid bill left Obama’s signature foreign policy initiative in doubt and deepened a rift between him and his party. This made Democrats look fractured and disorganized, a condition more typical in recent years of Republicans.
Lawmakers were pledging to try again next week to pass the bill rejected by Democrats, one focused on extending aid to American workers displaced by international trade, but the political damage to Obama was already done.
Democrats said Obama’s outreach on the issue was too little, too late, and few appeared in a mood to alter their stance before Tuesday’s vote.
On Thursday night, Obama made an unexpected appearance at the annual congressional baseball game to mix with lawmakers while he courted support for legislation to give him “fast-track” negotiating authority for his Trans-Pacific Partnership, as well as the related worker assistance measure.
On Friday morning, the president made an unusual visit to the Capitol to make a last-ditch plea for support. Obama’s appeal was “inspirational” but ineffective, Democratic lawmakers said.
The president told his party politicians in a crowded, windowless caucus room that he was determined that the trade pact, covering 12 Pacific Rim nations, would avoid the kinds of job losses associated with the U.S-Canada-Mexico free trade pact in the 1990s.
Some lawmakers said they took offense when Obama told them they would be going against their Democratic principles by opposing the worker aid program.
“The president tried to both guilt people and then impugn their integrity,” said Democrat Peter DeFazio of Oregon. “There were a number of us who were insulted by the approach,” said Democrat Peter DeFazio of Oregon.
Democrats complained that Obama ignored for too long their demands for stronger protections against currency manipulation and for higher labor and environmental standards.
“The overwhelming vote today is a clear indication that it’s time for Republicans to sit down with Democrats to negotiate a trade promotion authority bill that is a better deal for the American people,” Pelosi wrote to Democrats after the vote.
White House Spokesman Josh Earnest dismissed the vote as a “another procedural snafu” he believed more Democrats and Republicans could be persuaded to support the worker aid bill.
But some Democrats said they would not easily budge.
“I support the president on nearly everything. I don’t support him on this,” said Minnesota Democrat Keith Ellison.
Reporting by David Lawder and Ken Wills