The Slatest

House Democrats Defeat Obama/GOP Alliance on Free-Trade Push

Elizabeth Warren, an opponent of TPP, and President Obama.

Mark Wilson/Getty

In the Democratic party’s first large-scale defection from Barack Obama’s agenda during his presidency, House Democrats helped defeat a free-trade-related bill that would have expedited the creation of an Asian-American free trade zone.

The circumstances of the vote are a little confusing, but here’s the gist:

  • Obama is negotiating a “Trans-Pacific Partnership” free-trade agreement with 11 countries including Japan, Australia, Canada, and Mexico.
  • He would like Congress to pass a “Trade Promotion Authority” bill by which legislators would relinquish their right to filibuster or propose amendments to a final bill. They’d still have to vote to approve it.
  • Congressional Democrats, uneasy about the TPP’s potential impact on working-class jobs amid increasing general concerns about income inequality, have started to question what had long been the mainstream bipartisan consensus that free trade is a net positive for the United States economy.
  • The White House—working, for once, on the same side of an issue as the Republican Congressional leadership—had backed a compromise plan that involved first passing a separate bill that would, in the Washington Post’s words, “grant financial aid to displaced workers.” This is the kind of pro-labor bill that you’d normally think Democrats would vote for and Republicans against.
  • The Senate, after some wranglin’, passed the displaced-worker bill.
  • But House Democratic leaders didn’t support it, rank-and-file Democrats didn’t vote for it, and not enough Republicans got on board with their leaders’ support of the overall compromise plan to pass it.

The Times, Post, and Politico are all describing the vote in grandiose terms, calling it a “stunning” and “huge” defeat for the president, which seems a bit hyperbolic given that what happened today was not a final up-or-down vote on the TPP itself but rather a vote on a component part of a potential compromise. And Politico notes that there could be another vote on the displaced-worker bill as soon as next week.