Trade Deal Squeezes Congressional Democrats

Texas Democrats in the U.S. House face an agonizing choice: oppose a sweeping trade measure and deep-six President Obama’s economic legacy, or support it and antagonize labor, one of the largest financial constituents in the party.

U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro of Texas' 10th District talks about recent immigration issues at TTEvents on Feb. 19, 2015.

WASHINGTON – It took a fight between the president of the United States and the nation's labor unions to put beleaguered U.S. House Democrats in a position of power on Capitol Hill. But it’s a fight hardly anyone, including a handful of Texans, want any part of.

Over the next six months, President Obama will attempt to push through Congress the largest trade deal in American history. The far-reaching Trans-Pacific Partnership would knit together the U.S. and 11 Pacific Rim countries in an economic pact dwarfing other trade alliances.

Labor unions, fearing further wage and job losses for American workers, are vehemently against it, viewing this battle against a Democratic president as the fight of a generation.

And so House Democrats face an agonizing choice: oppose the measure and deep-six Obama’s economic legacy, or support it and antagonize labor, one of the largest financial constituents in the party.

Democratic staffers call the situation a "nightmare," and there is palpable fear that crossing the unions will mean facing labor-backed primary challengers in the future. The anxiety is so rampant that House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi had to reassure caucus members that she was addressing labor’s tactics, according to the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call.

“I can understand why they are feeling pressure,” said Jason Stanford, the spokesman for a coalition of labor, consumer and environmental groups that oppose the deal. A Democratic consultant from Texas, Stanford insists the discussion between traditional allies should remain positive. "What is intended is a loving and firm embrace from concerned friends.”

But from the Capitol halls to the members’ home districts, arms are being twisted, phone lines are burning and ads are airing. Behind closed doors at the Capitol, the fight is roiling the Democratic Party – and the Texas delegation.

Late next week, the U.S. House will vote on giving Obama power to negotiate the 12-nation agreement. If Obama wins that authority and strikes a deal, he will return to Congress in the fall for an up-or-down approval of the agreement.

Many Republicans back the deal, but he will need around 25 Democratic votes to give him the authority, called "fast track," to negotiate.  

Texans either firmly or likely against giving the president that power include U.S. Reps. Lloyd Doggett of Austin, Gene Green of Houston and Filemon Vela of Brownsville.

U.S. Reps. Henry Cuellar of Laredo and Eddie Bernice Johnson of Dallas back the president.

"This fight has become more about politics than policy, and it’s really a shame because the policy is good," Cuellar said in an email to The Texas Tribune. "TPP will open new markets for businesses, create jobs, and bring more money into the U.S. economy — particularly in states like Texas that are leaders in exports."

The rest of the Texas delegation is officially undecided, though many may have made decisions they aren't announcing. 

Across the board on Capitol Hill, staffers and members say the president, his Cabinet and senior staff are fully engaged in pressing his case. Staffers say that some Democrats are receiving their first-ever calls from the president. 

U.S. Rep. Marc Veasey, D-Fort Worth, recently received an invitation to the White House to discuss trade, but was unable to accept due to the House voting schedule. And Obama did a series of television station affiliate interviews on Wednesday with local reporters from regions represented by members who either support him or are undecided. 

Despite the presidential offensive, Veasey telegraphed on Tuesday that he is no fan of the deal. 

"I have not weighed [in] publicly yet. It's going to be really tough for a lot of members," he said, adding criticism about price, wage and environmental issues involved in trading with countries like Vietnam. 

That Obama is working the Hill astonishes some Democratic staffers and members accustomed to minimal interaction with the president.

Possibly the most painful spot right now for a House Democrat is in the undecided column, and two Texas Democrats are particularly feeling the squeeze: U.S. Reps. Beto O’Rourke of El Paso and Joaquin Castro of San Antonio, who finds himself in an especially ticklish position. 

Obama has a unique negotiating weapon in his arsenal: Castro’s twin brother, Department of Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro.

There is no discernible evidence that the Castros have discussed trade, but it’s widely known on Capitol Hill that the two speak multiple times a day.

But labor is pushing Joaquin Castro hard from the other side. The implicit threat is that crossing labor on an issue this important could complicate his accelerating rise in House leadership or any national ambitions (although his brother's name comes up more often on that front).

Congressional Republicans from Texas are just as scrambled, but it’s a far less divisive debate, turning mainly on a reluctance to give president any more power, even on an issue they support. 

A House GOP leadership-aligned group that backs a trade deal called the American Action Network is pushing $1 million worth of television, digital and radio advertising campaign across the country. The group is spending $200,000 on digital ads in 65 districts, including those of seven Texas Republicans: Reps. Ted Poe of Humble, Joe Barton of Ennis, John Culberson of Houston, Kay Granger of Fort Worth, Bill Flores of Bryan, Pete Olson of Sugar Land and Michael Burgess of Lewisville.

Burgess told the Tribune in April that he was against the deal because he did not want to give the president any more authority.