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U.S. Democrats block president's bid to fast-track free trade

In a public rebuke to President Barack Obama, top House Democrat Nancy Pelosi on Friday swung against legislation aimed at making it easier for the president and his successor to negotiate free trade deals.

Nancy Pelosi swings against legislation that could strengthen Barack Obama's hand in trade talks

President Barack Obama, House minority leader Nancy Pelosi of California and assistant leader James Clyburn of S.C., leave a meeting with House Democrats on Capitol Hill in which the president made an 11th-hour appeal to strengthen his hand in global trade talks. (Carolyn Kaster/Associated Press)

In a public rebuke to President Barack Obama, top House Democrat Nancy Pelosi on Friday swung against legislation aimed at making it easier for the president and his successor to negotiate free trade deals.

The California Democrat said lawmakers should "slow this down" in hopes of getting stronger protections for U.S. workers and the environment in potential trade pacts, including one with Pacific nations.

Pelosi made her position known just prior to separate House votes to reject aid to displaced workers and to give Obama the "fast track" trade negotiating authority he is seeking.

"We need to slow this 'fast track' down," Pelosi said.

The House ultimately defeated the bill.

Pelosi had been seen as a silent ally to Obama and Republicans running the House in promoting Obama's trade agenda, though she kept her position secret until the end of Friday's debate. She made clear in a floor speech she's open to supporting future trade legislation, noting that she represents a San Francisco district that thrives on trade and that she grew up in Baltimore, home of a thriving port.

"I was hopeful from the start of all of this discussion that we could find a path to 'yes' for the fast track legislation that was being put forth — some bumps in the road along the way; some potholes along the way; unfortunately, I think, sinkholes as well," Pelosi said. "But that doesn't mean that that road cannot be repaired. I just believe that it must be lengthened."

Republican leaders, who generally support Obama's trade objectives, signalled they might try to revive the package as early as next week. But that could require the shifting of at least 90 votes within either or both parties, a heavy lift.

Obama makes plea to party

Friday's setback was deep and personal for Obama, who made a surprise, last-minute trip to the Capitol to ask House Democrats to back him.

Pelosi voted "no" despite escorting Obama into a closed-door caucus of House Democrats, most of whom opposed the fast-track trade bill, which requires that trade pacts be delivered to Congress for up or down votes, without amendment. The authority is key to getting trade partners to seal agreements since they know Congress can't amend them.

The administration currently is trying to conclude negotiations with 11 Pacific-rim countries including Japan and  possibly Canada through the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Other trade agreements could follow.

Pelosi, a California Democrat, was in a tough spot, torn between loyalty to a president whose agenda she supports and a Democratic caucus strongly tilted against Obama in this instance.

Pelosi personally muscled Obama's health care bill through the House in 2009 and has seen her party absorb crippling losses in the 2010 and 2014 midterm elections. Now, so many of her members are packed into Democratic strongholds that their greatest political threat comes in Democratic primaries — and they pay close attention to labour, environmental activists and other of the party's traditional liberal allies. But she also wields significant power since she controls Democratic votes GOP leaders like Speaker John Boehner of Ohio must turn to make up for tea party defections.

Unions, progressive groups feel strongly

"She's in a really difficult situation," said pro-trade Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas. "She doesn't want to see the president fail. At the same time, she understands that there's a lot of folks — labour and other folks, other progressive groups, and some members that feel strongly."

Pelosi said, "I've been very prayerful on this."

A churchgoing Catholic, Pelosi invoked popes and global warming both in a floor speech that sometimes meandered. (Unlike other members she has no constraints on how long she can speak.) She also lavished praise on Obama, calling him "magnificent and courageous."

Pelosi, top lieutenant (and past rival) Steny Hoyer, D-Md., and Rep. Jim Clyburn, D-S.C., met alone with Obama for 20 minutes before a closed-door meeting with Democrats. She advised him that she was leaning against the very vote he was asking skeptical Democrats to make.

Shortly later, only 40 of 188 Democrats backed Obama on a crucial vote on legislation that would normally be a top Democratic priority — to aid workers who lose their jobs because of trade deals — because its passage was directly linked to advancing the subsequent trade negotiating measure as well.

The vote was a big blow to a major agenda item for a lame-duck Obama, whose remaining hopes for a legislative legacy are hobbled by a GOP-controlled Congress and a presidential campaign that's already underway.

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