Nancy Pelosi finally weighs in on House trade vote

Willie Grace | 6/11/2015, 5:29 a.m.
But two days before an expected vote on the White House's top economic priority, Pelosi -- so far not a ...
Nancy Pelosi

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- For months, House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi has said she has been looking to find "a path to yes" on President Barack Obama's trade bill.

But two days before an expected vote on the White House's top economic priority, Pelosi -- so far not a factor in key negotiations on the vote that is expected to be extremely close -- is raising red flags that could threaten to derail the so-called "fast track" measure.

The White House was worried enough Wednesday to dispatch Denis McDonough, the President's chief-of-staff, and a handful of top trade, economic and labor aides to the California Democrat's office to discuss the problems she's raised.

Pelosi's spokesman downplayed the meeting with top Obama administration officials, emphasizing that the meeting on trade was already on the schedule and was a broader discussion beyond the procedural issues.

And at a closed-door meeting of House Democrats on Wednesday morning, Pelosi discussed the procedural issues that have become the final sticking point in the debate.

The hitch, as Pelosi sees it, is a procedural decision by House Speaker John Boehner that has Democrats worrying they'll be putting a target on their own backs by voting for the bill.

The bill Obama wants, and majority Republicans are prepared to give him, is called trade promotion authority. It would grease the wheels for the 12-country Trans-Pacific Partnership by guaranteeing that pact an up-or-down vote with limited debate and no amendments -- which trade negotiators say is essential to getting other countries involved in the talks to make their best offers.

But to attract any Democratic votes, Congress is tacking on Trade Adjustment Assistance, a program that assists displaced workers.

How to pay for that portion has been the subject of wrangling between Boehner and Pelosi after Democrats made clear they wouldn't support a Senate-passed version that cut Medicare.

The two leaders agreed on an alternative -- but to avoid more procedural complications, Boehner is seeking to advance that alternative in a separate bill.

That's got Democrats fretting that they'll be targeted by the National Republican Congressional Committee, the GOP's campaign arm, if they vote for the original bill without the fix being passed first -- and without an ironclad guarantee from the Senate that it would similarly approve that fix. Democrats worry, specifically, that Republicans could accuse them of cutting health care to seniors.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, offered those assurances, saying his chamber would quickly move the separate bill, which contains other trade preferences provisions.

"The Senate passed the trade preferences bill by a vote of 97-1," McConnell said in a statement Wednesday evening. "After the House passes this measure, the Senate will work expeditiously to approve it and send it to the president's desk."

Now, both pro-trade Democrats and Republicans are trying to figure out Pelosi's angle.

Virginia Rep. Gerry Connolly, who is committed to voting for the package, told reporters that Pelosi has "kept her own counsel until now."