WASHINGTON – The largely secret Trans Pacific Partnership deal was blocked in the House Friday in a setback resulting from pressure applied for many months by a powerful coalition of unions, community groups, environmental groups and civil rights organizations.
It was progressive Democrats in the House who delivered the legislative blow by rejecting a so-called trade partnership amendment to the TPP bill whose actual purpose was to fast track the trade pact between the U.S. and 11 other Pacific Rim countries.
Democrats responded to calls from their constituents who cried out against the deal and rebuffed pressure from President Obama to join his unusual alliance with pro-TPP Republicans.
On Friday, at least, a defiant progressive wing of the Democratic Party in the House responded to the unprecedented campaign against Fast Track waged by labor and its allies.
“This is not about the President,” declared Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., one of the leading congressional voices against the pact. “It really is all about what we heard from our own people, what they thought was the right thing to do.”
The leaders of the coalition that have been organizing the opposition to Fast Track seemed to sense that both their campaign against the bill and the vote Friday reflected something new in American politics.
Even as he warned that “the fight is not over” (another vote could come up in the House as early as Tuesday) AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka declared, “This is a significant day in America. America’s workers came together and spoke with one voice about the path this country and economy should follow.
“The debate over Fast Track so far has been a marvelous contrast to the corporate money and disillusionment that normally mars American politics today.
“This was truly democracy in action,” he declared, “with millions exercising their rights to inform their elected representatives. We should all draw from this experience to help replenish our democracy at every level on every issue.”
The votes in the House Friday were on two measures, both of which had to pass in order to send the legislation, which was approved in the Senate last month, to President Obama for his signature.
A bill to give the President fast-track authority to negotiate future trade deals was approved, although only by a narrow 219-211 vote. But another measure, ostensibly to provide assistance money to retrain displaced workers, failed 126-302. It failed, however, because Democrats, who normally support such assistance, voted against it.
Labor, its allies and Democrats in the House saw the trade assistance bill as a last-minute ploy by Fast-Track supporters to win support for the main TPP package itself. Democrats voted against the measure not just to sink the TPP but to express anger over Republican plans to pay for the future “retraining” with eventual cuts in Medicare.
Fast Track backers say that what happened Friday was merely a legislative bump in the road to approval of the trade pact. Opponents of the bill say that the unprecedented mass fightback against the bill was what was really at work and that Friday was more than just a snafu.
Rallies, mass marches, lobbying campaigns, phone banking operations, email campaigns, and sit-ins were carried out for months by unions, religious groups, environmental watchdogs, the NAACP and many others. Their message was simple: Fast Track was beneficial only to the corporate elite but devastating to the 99 percent.
TPP, they said, would trash workers’ rights, kill jobs and open the floodgates to new rounds of outsourcing.
A paramount concern for Fast Track opponents was that it would authorize secret deals for future trade pacts. The secret deals would then be followed by up or down votes with no chance to amend or change parts of the legislation.
“Not only do TPP backers have the gall to write and push this horrible legislation, but they want to do it behind closed doors, without letting Congress read it,” said AFGE President J. David Cox just before the vote. “This deal is bad for workers, it is wrong and it is a wrecking ball to the American dream,” said Cox, a Veterans Administration nurse who grew up in a North Carolina textile mill town that he said was “devastated” by the North Atlantic Free Trade Agreement, a previous trade deal opposed by labor.
“We are tired of all the secrecy going on around all these trade deals,” said Liz Shuler, the AFL-CIO’s secretary treasurer, also before the vote. “We were promised that this would be the most transparent of all trade deals. Instead, we can’t even see the text. We’re sick of relying on promises.”
AFL-CIO President Trumka praised Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif, who he said took a courageous stand in opposition to the TPP.
When Pelosi announced that she was voting against the retraining bill as the only way to block the larger TPP accord votes in the House began swinging her way.
It is difficult to determine whether totals will change in any new vote Tuesday or later this week.
To get TPP passed Republican leaders would have to swing many more than the 86 Republicans who voted Friday in favor of the retraining amendment. It’s a tough task for GOP leaders who would have to corral right-wing lawmakers who have difficulty supporting anything that even sounds like it would help workers.
On the Democratic side progressives would have to change their votes too. After Friday, however, many of the liberal Democrats appeared bolder in their opposition than they were before the vote. In Washington, where outcomes are often uncertain, one thing is clear, however. The labor-led coalition that has come this far isn’t going away anytime soon.
“From here we move on to fighting for the raising wages agenda and to fashioning trade agreements that boost and lift up both the economy and all the workers,” Trumka said.
Eric Hauser, the AFL-CIO’s communications director noted that the nation is seeing an unprecedented and serious campaign. “So far labor and its allies have organized 650 anti-Fast Track events. Thousands of workers have travelled to D.C. to lobby, two million have called members of Congress and 18,000 have sent hand-written letters. Digital ads,” he said, “have gotten 25 million hits so far.”
Mark Gruenberg contributed to this story.