Harry Reid. Elizabeth Warren. Even Hillary Clinton.
President Barack Obama can’t seem to get any powerful member of his own party to support him on his trade initiative, complicating the chances for what he sees as a major late-term win for his legacy.
Clinton has backed off her support of the looming trade initiative on the campaign trail. Reid gave Obama a quick “hell no” when asked by reporters if he supported the deal. And Warren, the progressive favorite and senator from Massachusetts, has gone on the warpath, framing the issue in a larger fight over income inequality. The Democratic infighting has opened up comparisons to the Republican Party’s “civil war” over the past few years.
“Well I guess they don’t want it to happen,” Obama told MSNBC’s Chris Matthews in an interview on Tuesday about the Democratic opposition, as he tried to assuage liberals’ concerns about the deal. “And I love Elizabeth. We’re allies on a whole host of issues. But she’s wrong on this.”
Warren fired back in a tweet Wednesday morning, hitting on a criticism of the negotiation’s transparency:
Why’s this happening now?
At the heart of the issue are two acronyms: TPP and TPA. Both of these acronyms are coming to a head, which is why the fight is beginning to become so bitter. The issue could linger as a headache for Clinton in the 2016 Democratic primary, as the pro-labor side of the party tries to push her to the left.
The first acronym, TPP, represents the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a proposed trade agreement featuring 12 countries, including the United States, Mexico, Japan, Canada, and Australia. The deal, which would open the door to free trade among the countries, is in the final stages of negotiation.
TPA stands for “Trade Promotion Authority,” which is legislation that would smooth the path for Obama to directly negotiate with his counterparts in other countries. The so-called “fast track” legislation would, in essence, allow the president to bring the trade agreement to Congress for an up-or-down vote. It wouldn’t allow Congress to amend the deal.
Obama and his unusual allies in the Republican Party have argued that “fast track” authority is necessary for the deal to be completed. After all, that would mean the 11 other countries privy to the deal would be, in essence, negotiating with not only the administration, but also with 535 members of Congress.
Republican members of Congress have argued that TPA is actually the best method for Congress to approve of any final trade deal.
“It will ensure the timely and efficient implementation of trade agreements, and give our negotiators leverage to break down barriers to boost exports and wages,” House Speaker John Boehner said last week. “And, notably, TPA will strengthen Congress’s authority by clearly defining negotiating objectives and spelling out a detailed oversight and consultation process to achieve a final agreement.”
Who else supports TPP and TPA?
Obama has been one of the initiative’s biggest supporters. And as Ian Bremmer, the president of the global risk firm Eurasia Group, pointed out, his administration has lobbied Congress on the initiative harder than anything aside from perhaps the Affordable Care Act and the Iran nuclear negotiations.
Obama argued last week that a vote against the TPP is essentially a vote for the status quo. He also said it would allow China to gain a competitive advantage in the Asian markets, which he said are the “fastest-growing” in the world.
“I will just repeat that 95 percent of the world’s markets are outside our borders,” Obama said in a press conference. “The fastest-growing markets, the most populous markets are going to be in Asia. And if we do not help to shape the rules so that our businesses and our workers can compete in those markets, then China will set up rules that advantage Chinese workers and Chinese businesses.”
Obama has some unusual de-facto allies in this fight: Boehner, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, House Ways and Means Committee Chair Paul Ryan, and even Texas Sen. and presidential candidate Ted Cruz.
The most key Democrat to support the deal is Sen. Ron Wyden, the ranking member on the Senate Finance Committee. It’s not clear yet if House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi or any of her top lieutenants will offer their support. So far, Pelosi has been cautious in her statements on the issue. There’s one key ally Obama can’t count on in this debate, however.
"I have never, ever supported a trade agreement, and I'm not going to start now," Reid, the Senate Minority Leader, told reporters on Tuesday. "So the answer is not only no, but hell no."
What’s it mean for 2016?
As the campaign starts heating up, the debate over the TPP and “fast track” authority will likely become heated in the Democratic primary.
As secretary of state, Clinton called the TPP — as it was being negotiated then — the potential “gold standard” of trade agreements. But her campaign has shifted that stance in recent days, saying the deal will have to pass a number of tests before it can earn her support.
“Any trade deal has to produce jobs and raise wages and increase prosperity and protect our security,” Clinton said of the negotiations during a campaign stop on Tuesday.
Liberals and pro-union groups are very much against the deal. And they have allies in potential candidates like former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, an independent who is considering a run as a Democrat.
O’Malley seems to have found an opening to attack Clinton as he weighs a primary challenge to her. On Tuesday, he released a video on his opposition to the TPP. In a tweet, he also said opposing it shouldn’t be a “hard choice,” a not-so-subtle reference to the title of Clinton’s latest memoir.
Brett LoGiurato is the senior national political correspondent at Fusion, where he covers all things 2016. He'll give you everything you need to know about politics, with a healthy side of puns.