A coalition of Democratic lawmakers resoundingly rejected President Obama's call to pass legislation that would make it easier for him to negotiate international trade deals, saying the administration's trade agenda was dangerous to the economy and had to be stopped.
"The president said last night that previous trade deals had not lived up to the hype. That may be the understatement of the century," Rep. Louise Slaughter, D-N.Y., said at a press conference with other House Democrats. "We will fight this tooth and nail, and I believe we are going to win."
The president urged lawmakers Tuesday to pass trade promotion authority, legislation that would limit Congress to an up-or-down vote on approving trade deals. Obama said he needs it to strengthen his hand in international negotiations. Otherwise the U.S. would cede the stage to others, he warned.
"China wants to write the rules for the world’s fastest-growing region. That would put our workers and businesses at a disadvantage. Why would we let that happen? We should write those rules. We should level the playing field," Obama said.
The president was alluding to the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade pact involving 12 Pacific Rim nations that is in final negotiations. The White House wants Congress to pass trade promotion authority, also known as "fast track," first to ensure that Congress will not tinker with the Pacific deal.
For trade-skeptic Democrats, that was asking far too much.
"Fast track is designed to embed into these so-called free trade agreements a bunch of things that are detrimental to the American public," said Rep. Pete DeFazio, D-Ore.
Obama called for fast track in last year's State of the Union, but then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., killed it the next day. But since Republican congressional leaders, who now control majorities in both houses, are backing the president on trade, the conventional wisdom is that the fast track legislation can pass this year.
The trade critics expressed confidence that they could defeat fast track, though. Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-N.Y., said that by her count 190 members of both parties signed various letters critical of fast track in the last Congress. The House has 435 members, and it takes 218 votes to pass legislation.