WASHINGTON — In a logical world, President Obama's bid to negotiate a massive trade agreement with 11 Pacific Rim partners would find warm welcome in a Congress dominated by conservatives who, traditionally, embrace free trade in most forms.
But a measure giving Obama authority to hammer out such a deal is blowing up normal alliances on Capitol Hill — including within the Texas delegation — and making for strange bedfellows. How strange? U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz and Wisconsin U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan are with the president on this one.
Texas' congressional delegation is all over the map. Republicans are balancing the interests of their districts — and reflexive devotion to open markets — with distrust of a president they are loath to support. Democrats, meanwhile, find themselves caught between their president's legislative economic priority and vehement opposition to the deal from labor.
“I hope it produces something good, but I’m concerned we head for another train wreck,” said U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Austin, a critic of the proposal.
At issue is Obama's request, now before Congress, for the power to negotiate a Trans-Pacific Partnership with 11 other countries including Australia, Japan, Chile and Vietnam. The deal could rival the North American Free Trade Agreement in economic impact on the United States. If passed, the Pacific partnership would encompass one-third of the world's trade and as much as 40 percent of the world's gross domestic product, according to the Brookings Institution.
If he arrives at a deal with foreign leaders, Obama would bring it back to Congress for a straight up or down vote, with no chance for lawmakers to fiddle with the wording or terms.
Formally known as “Trade Promotion Authority,” but colloquially known on Capitol Hill as “fast track,” such authority has been handed to presidents in the past on the theory that it's nearly impossible for a head of state to negotiate with foreign leaders on economic issues with hundreds of legislators trying to get involved, and subjecting the deal to dozens of amendments. House and Senate votes on the authorization are expected in May.
But the potential partnership sets up intra-party clashes within a Congress already riven by partisanship. The legislation is on track to pit Republicans averse to giving Obama any power and Democrats loyal to labor against Republicans and conservative Democrats who prioritize free trade and more liberal Democrats who want to support the president.
One of Obama’s chief congressional allies is Ryan, the Republican U.S. House Ways and Means chairman who ran against him as the GOP’s 2012 vice presidential nominee. Ryan’s advocacy reassures some Texas Republicans and worries Democrats. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce also backs the deal.
In the Texas delegation, Doggett has fellow skeptics, including Republicans who are signaling their opposition. But Cruz and a mixture of Republicans and Democrats are in favor of it. And there are plenty of fence sitters who have yet to reveal how they intend to vote.
“My district is the district around the DFW airport,” said Republican U.S. Rep. Kenny Marchant, a fast track supporter. “I may have one of the number one [districts] in trade, foreign trade areas, in the entire state — and maybe the nation. So I think it gives the proper protections to Congress.”
But some Republicans who frequently side with GOP House leadership are expressing concern, like U.S. Rep. Kay Granger, R-Fort Worth, who has yet to say how she will vote.
“I think without exception I’ve been supportive of trade,” she said. “It would be an odd situation if I didn’t.”
But she shares a hesitancy with some fellow Republicans: concern about executive power in the Obama era.
The president's November executive action on immigration poisoned his relationships with many Republicans, and now hangs over nearly everything that happens on the Hill. Republicans are furious with him for their perception that he overstepped the bounds of executive power. Five months later, they are weary of giving him any more of it, even on trade legislation they would, on policy grounds, normally support.
“That’s the issue, about how much authority he has,” Granger said.
Many Republicans privately say they are supportive of giving a president trade authority power, just not this particular president.
U.S. Rep. Michael Burgess, R-Lewisville, was more empathic. “My general feeling is, why would I want to devolve more authority to this president when I’m already concerned he’s taking more than he should?” he said.
So despite Republicans' dominance in the House, senior Capitol Hill operatives and lobbying-world observers estimate that 20 to 25 Democratic votes will be needed to pass the bill in the House because of conservative defectors.
One of those Democrats will be U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo, one of the most conservative members of his party. He is the first Democrat to co-sponsor the bill. In a statement, he called the trade partnership “a no brainer.”
There is speculation that other, more liberal Democratic members in the delegation will fall in line and vote for the deal out of loyalty to the president. But many members of the president's party are against the deal. The labor unions are fiercely battling the legislation, and the disagreement is spilling out publicly between the president and many liberal House and Senate Democrats.
One of those is Doggett, who is critical of the transparency of the legislation and the fast speed at which it is moving.
“I wouldn’t call it an all-out revolt,” he said. “I think people can respectfully disagree on this. I favor more commerce, but I think there’s a better way to do it than this bill does.”
The president did, however, get cover on Wednesday from another odd corner: Cruz.
The junior senator’s Wall Street Journal op-ed written with Ryan was the talk of the Hill this past week.
“In short, TPA is what U.S. negotiators need to win a fair deal for the American worker,” they wrote.
Beyond his individual vote, Cruz wields enormous influence over the most conservative House members — many of the same members who are anxious about the presidential authority issue.
Marchant said he found the op-ed “certainly helpful” in coming to his conclusion to support the deal.
But Burgess was not assuaged.
“I don’t know if it moves the needle on anything,” he said.
And so Burgess and other conservatives find themselves in a strange place — siding with labor unions against the president and House GOP leadership, albeit with different motives and interests.
He brushed off the alliance.
“I’m on the same sides of my constituents, as it turns out,” Burgess said. “So that’s a good thing.”