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World

House Rejects Legislation To Give Obama Fast-Track Trade Authority

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

We begin this hour with the stinging rebuke President Obama suffered today from members of his own party. Democrats in the House of Representatives managed to block legislation that would have given him fast-track authority to finalize a big Asia-Pacific trade deal. This happened despite a flurry of last-minute lobbying by the White House, including a rare presidential visit to Capitol Hill. NPR's Scott Horsley starts us off.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: President Obama was counting on a coalition of strange bedfellows to pass the fast-track bill. Instead, an even stranger coalition was the measure's undoing. Democrats, who ordinarily support relief for workers whose jobs are hurt by a foreign competition, voted down a measure that would provide just that kind of help. And because that worker assistance is joined at the hip with the trade negotiating bill, that effectively put the brakes on fast-track. Obama had urged Democrats not to resort to that kind of parliamentary gamesmanship. But California Congressman Brad Sherman argued the worker assistance bill was their only leverage to bring down the trade package.

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BRAD SHERMAN: What's the good of having a little bit of trade adjustment assistance if we lose millions of jobs because we put them on a fast track to Asia?

HORSLEY: In a dramatic, last-minute floor speech, House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi also urged her colleagues to vote down the trade package. Up until today, Pelosi had been silent on where she stood. Many Democrats in the House applauded as Pelosi's opposition to the trade deal became clear.

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NANCY PELOSI: For these, and other reasons, I will be voting today to slow down the fast-track to get a better deal for the American people.

HORSLEY: Pelosi's talk of a potential better deal suggests this might not be the end of the line for fast-track. Indeed, Republican leaders in the House plan to hold another vote on the worker assistance bill next week. At the White House, spokesman Josh Earnest was philosophical, noting the Senate also needed a couple of tries before it OK'd the fast-track bill. But despite that brave face, the president and his team had gone all out in hopes of winning today's vote.

Obama, who rarely schmoozes with lawmakers, paid an unscheduled visit to the congressional baseball game last night and he followed that up this morning with a surprise trip to Capitol Hill. He tried repeatedly to make the case that lowering trade barriers would be good for American workers. But as he left the Capitol this morning, Obama acknowledged he hadn't closed the sale.

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BARACK OBAMA: You know, I don't think you ever nail anything down right here. It's always moving.

HORSLEY: The president and congressional Republicans will scramble this weekend to salvage the trade package. Matthew Goodman, who's advised both Republican and Democratic White Houses on Asia, says the trade deal is the linchpin of Obama's effort to boost America's profile in the Pacific.

MATTHEW GOODMAN: I think if this fails it would be really catastrophic to, of course, the Obama administration's strategy in Asia, but I think more broadly to U.S. interests in the region.

HORSLEY: Political analyst Jack Pitney of Claremont McKenna College says today's vote is also a setback for Republicans in Congress. For whom trade is such a big priority, they were willing to work with the president.

JACK PITNEY: A defeat on this will revive the talk that the Republicans really are not ready for prime time, that they can't get constructive measures through Congress, and that provides ammunition to the Democrats.

HORSLEY: Today's vote was also a rare political victory for organized labor, which campaigned hard against the trade package. Pitney says a lot of House Democrats showed they owe more allegiance to labor unions than they do the president from their own party. Scott Horsley, NPR News, the White House. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.