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Union-backed Dems make final push to kill Obama's trade bill

| Thursday, June 11, 2015, 9:24 p.m.

WASHINGTON — Union-backed Democrats began a last-ditch effort Thursday to scuttle President Obama's trade agenda by sacrificing a favored program of their own that retrains workers displaced by international trade.

The retraining program is linked to the Democrats' real target: legislation to help Obama advance multi-nation trade agreements. In hopes of bringing down the whole package, which they say imperils jobs at home, numerous House Democrats said they would vote Friday against the retraining measure.

House Republicans were in the odd position of supporting Obama's bid for “fast-track” trade-negotiating authority, while the White House struggled to come up with enough Democratic votes to win passage.

In a closed meeting in the Capitol, top White House officials implored Democrats not to deny Obama the trade authority. Such a vote, they said, would block needed trade expansion and sink a major priority of Obama.

The sometimes emotional exchanges illustrate the high stakes and intense feelings surrounding Obama's bid for “fast-track” trade-negotiating authority. Such authority, which previous presidents have enjoyed, would let Obama present Congress with proposed trade agreements that it could ratify or reject but not change. One other drawback to the legislation is that no details of how it will work will be made known until after it is passed. Critics believe it will give too much authority in non-trade areas still unknown, such as immigration. Others deride the inclusion of a rule that will give the leader of any of the smaller countries the same vote as an American president.

Obama hopes to advance the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership and other trade proposals that have been negotiated for years.

Unions vehemently oppose such deals, saying they ship American jobs abroad. The trade issue's divisiveness was evident when the House voted narrowly, 217-212, to advance the package to the showdown Friday.

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka urged House Democrats to do something once unthinkable — reject the retraining program, known as Trade Adjustment Authority, or TAA — as the best means to kill fast track. Those attending the meeting said Trumka told Democrats he would pray for those who oppose the unions' position.

Some senior Democrats are with Trumka, suggesting the votes could be close and dramatic.

“The TAA is the handmaiden to facilitate the whole deal,” said Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore. “We have the potential to stop this whole train and revisit the most egregious provisions” of fast track. “It's counterintuitive for Democrats to be voting against it, but President Trumka came and said vote against it.”

The strategy could scuttle the whole package, because many Republicans have long records of opposing the jobs retraining program, which they consider wasteful.

The biggest questions hanging over the House are: How many of the 188 Democrats will vote against the retraining program because it's the best way to kill fast track? And how many of the 246 Republicans might hold their noses and vote for the jobs program in a bid to save fast track?

Rep. Richard Hudson, R-N.C., said of the Democrats: “It's in their hands; they have to pass TAA. We can only deliver a certain number of votes for TAA. So we'll see. We're calling their bluff. If they want to bring it down, then it's going to be a crushing blow to their president.”

If the jobs program survives, the House will vote on fast track. Presumably, the politics would be reversed, with many Republicans and as few as 20 Democrats voting for the legislation.

Several Democrats said the sequencing of the bill votes is outrageous. “The process is just as horrible as the substance,” said Rep. Bill Pascrell, D-N.J., who opposes the entire package. The Senate linked the two measures when it passed the trade package earlier this year.

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