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Pelosi, the Last Hurdle to Obama’s Trade Agenda, Acknowledges Defeat

Rep. Nancy Pelosi just admitted defeat, paving the way for Obama's trade agenda.

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Rep. Nancy Pelosi led the Democratic rebellion against President Barack Obama’s trade agenda. On Wednesday, she admitted defeat, clearing the way for the president to get his controversial Asian trade bill through Congress.

The California Democrat told her caucus Wednesday afternoon that she was dropping opposition to Trade Adjustment Assistance, a program to help workers negatively affected by jobs moving overseas. Democrats, who are traditionally fervent supporters of the program, opposed it on June 12 to derail Obama’s effort to get the ability to quickly push through trade deals like the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

But she’s been outmaneuvered by Republicans and the president. Obama allied himself with Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), who introduced standalone legislation giving Obama fast-track powers. It passed the House last week and is likely to get through the Senate Wednesday afternoon. It could be on the president’s desk as early as Thursday.

This left Pelosi with a stark choice: fight against a worker’s program Democrats love and continue to derail the president’s trade ambitions, or admit she’s lost.

She, and a number of of other anti-fast-track Democrats like Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) and Rep. Joseph Crowley (D-N.Y.), did the latter Wednesday.

“While we may not all vote in the same manner on TAA, I will support its passage because it can open the door to a full debate on [the Trans-Pacific Partnership],” she said in a letter to House Democrats.

Now, Obama has all he needs to secure the TPP, a massive 12-nation trade bill with Asian nations that is one of the centerpieces of his administration’s so-called rebalancing to the Asia-Pacific region. He can quickly advance the deal, negotiated in secret over the last five years, with hopes of having it in place by the time he leaves office.

Securing an American-led trading order in the region is especially important, the administration argues, because of China’s growing economic and diplomatic heft. That is most clearly evidenced by the launch of a Chinese-dominated Asian infrastructure investment bank that the United States bitterly opposed.

The Pelosi-Obama rift is evidence of the scorched earth that Obama and pro-trade Republicans leave in the wake of the TPP debate. Obama was forced to form a union with top GOP lawmakers that have defied him on issues from healthcare to the Islamic State. In the process, he turned his back on Pelosi, historically one of his most fervent allies on the Hill.

Boehner, for his part, publicly shamed anti-trade GOP lawmakers with ties to the Tea Party, a group that also opposes the TPP. Now, there are growing questions about whether the Ohio Republican can be an effective leader as he runs out his term as House Speaker.

“What does John Boehner hope to accomplish over the next 18 months? In 2011, he rode a conservative, Tea Party wave to become speaker,” Michael A. Needham, chairman of the conservative group Heritage Action for America, said Wednesday.  “Now he seems content to punish those conservative lawmakers for representing constituents who understandably feel ignored by Washington.”

“The coach needs to stop blaming the players, and more players need to assess whether they want to be a part of this team,” he said.

Photo Credit: Getty Images

David Francis was a senior reporter for Foreign Policy, where he covered international finance. @davidcfrancis

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