House revives Obama's trade agenda, struggle moves to Senate

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Obama Gets More Time to Drum Up Trade Agenda Support

WASHINGTON (AP) -- The House dramatically rescued President Barack Obama's trade agenda from near oblivion Thursday, and supporters urged the Senate to finish the job and give him a signature achievement in his final years in office.

The turnabout gave a much-needed lift to a president recently rebuffed by his own party after years of fighting Republicans.

In one of the strangest twists of his presidency, most fellow Democrats oppose Obama on trade, forcing him to rely heavily on Republicans to ease the path for possibly far-reaching trade accords in Asia and elsewhere.

The president needs comparatively small numbers of Democrats in both chambers. His supporters were encouraged by Thursday's events.

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House revives Obama's trade agenda, struggle moves to Senate
WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 23: Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND) (C) talks with reporters following the weekly Democratic Senate policy luncheon at the U.S. Capitol June 23, 2015 in Washington, DC. The Senate passed an important procedural vote on the Trans Pacific Partnership bill, which would grant President Barack Obama enhanced negotiating powers to complete a major trade accord, clearing the way for final passage as early as Wednesday. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 23: Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) (L) talks to reporters with Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) following the weekly Democratic Senate policy luncheon at the U.S. Capitol June 23, 2015 in Washington, DC. The Senate passed an important procedural vote on the Trans Pacific Partnership bill, which would grant President Barack Obama enhanced negotiating powers to complete a major trade accord, clearing the way for final passage as early as Wednesday. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 23: Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) talks with reporters following the weekly Democratic Senate policy luncheon at the U.S. Capitol June 23, 2015 in Washington, DC. The Senate passed an important procedural vote on the Trans Pacific Partnership bill, which would grant President Barack Obama enhanced negotiating powers to complete a major trade accord, clearing the way for final passage as early as Wednesday. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 23: Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-GA) (R) talks to reporters following the weekly Republican Senate policy luncheon at the U.S. Capitol June 23, 2015 in Washington, DC. The Senate passed an important procedural vote on the Trans Pacific Partnership bill, which would grant President Barack Obama enhanced negotiating powers to complete a major trade accord, clearing the way for final passage as early as Wednesday. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 23: Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) (C) talks to reporters following the weekly Democratic Senate policy luncheon at the U.S. Capitol June 23, 2015 in Washington, DC. The Senate passed an important procedural vote on the Trans Pacific Partnership bill, which would grant President Barack Obama enhanced negotiating powers to complete a major trade accord, clearing the way for final passage as early as Wednesday. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 23: Republican presidential candidate Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) is pursued by reporters following the weekly Democratic Senate policy luncheon at the U.S. Capitol June 23, 2015 in Washington, DC. The Senate passed an important procedural vote on the Trans Pacific Partnership bill, which would grant President Barack Obama enhanced negotiating powers to complete a major trade accord, clearing the way for final passage as early as Wednesday. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 23: Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) (C) talks to reporters with Sen. John Barrasso (R-WY) (L) and Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-TX) after the weekly Republican Senate policy luncheon at the U.S. Capitol June 23, 2015 in Washington, DC. The Senate passed an important procedural vote on the Trans Pacific Partnership bill, which would grant President Barack Obama enhanced negotiating powers to complete a major trade accord, clearing the way for final passage as early as Wednesday. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 09: Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) answers questions as members of the Republican leadership speak about the Defense Authorization Bill following caucus luncheons at the U.S. Capitol June 9, 2015 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)
Rep. Lloyd Doggett, ,D-Texas, left, and Rep. Sander Levin, D-Mich., join other House Democrats who are standing in opposition to the President Barack Obama's trade deal speak to reporters during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, June 16, 2015. (AP Photo/Lauren Victoria Burke)
Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., accompanied by fellow House Democrats, listens during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, June 16, 2016, to discuss opposition to the President Barack Obama's trade deal. Despite Obama's direct appeal, House Democrats voted overwhelmingly on Friday to reject a jobs retraining program because it was legislatively linked to fast track, which they want to kill. Both parties were asking Tuesday whether they could persuade enough colleagues to switch their votes and reverse Friday's outcome, but few were optimistic. (AP Photo/Lauren Victoria Burke)
Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., accompanied by fellow House Democrats, gestures during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, June 16, 2016, to discuss opposition to the President Barack Obama's trade deal. Despite Obama's direct appeal, House Democrats voted overwhelmingly on Friday to reject a jobs retraining program because it was legislatively linked to fast track, which they want to kill. Both parties were asking Tuesday whether they could persuade enough colleagues to switch their votes and reverse Friday's outcome, but few were optimistic. (AP Photo/Lauren Victoria Burke)
WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 12: Members of the House depart for the weekend after a series of critical votes at the US Capitol June 12, 2015 in Washington, DC. House Democrats voted down legislation that would grant aid to workers displaced by trade, dealing a potentially fatal blow to the fast-track legislation. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 12: Members of the House depart for the weekend after a series of critical votes at the US Capitol June 12, 2015 in Washington, DC. House Democrats voted down legislation that would grant aid to workers displaced by trade, dealing a potentially fatal blow to the fast-track legislation. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 12: Members of the House depart for the weekend after a series of critical votes at the US Capitol June 12, 2015 in Washington, DC. House Democrats voted down legislation that would grant aid to workers displaced by trade, dealing a potentially fatal blow to the fast-track legislation. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
President Barack Obama and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of Calif. leave meeting with House Democrats on Capitol Hill in Washington, Friday, June 12, 2015. The president made an 11th-hour appeal to dubious Democrats on Friday in a tense run-up to a House showdown on legislation to strengthen his hand in global trade talks (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 12: Members of the House depart for the weekend after a series of critical votes at the US Capitol June 12, 2015 in Washington, DC. House Democrats voted down legislation that would grant aid to workers displaced by trade, dealing a potentially fatal blow to the fast-track legislation. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
President Barack Obama walks with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of Calif., right and House Minority Assistant Leader James Clyburn of S.C., as he visits Capitol Hill in Washington, Friday, June 12, 2015, for a meeting with House Democrats. The president made an 11th-hour appeal to dubious Democrats on Friday in a tense run-up to a House showdown on legislation to strengthen his hand in global trade talks (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
President Barack Obama and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of Calif. leave meeting with House Democrats on Capitol Hill in Washington, Friday, June 12, 2015. The president made an 11th-hour appeal to dubious Democrats on Friday in a tense run-up to a House showdown on legislation to strengthen his hand in global trade talks. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
Rep. Bill Pascrell Jr., D-NJ., arrives for a meeting with President Barack Obama and other House Democrats on Capitol Hill in Washington, Friday, June 12, 2015. The president made an 11th-hour appeal to dubious Democrats on Friday in a tense run-up to a House showdown on legislation to strengthen his hand in global trade talks. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis. walks toward the House Chamber floor on Capitol Hill in Washington, Friday, June 12, 2015. The House sidetracked a high-profile White House-backed trade bill, a humiliating defeat for President Barack Obama inflicted by Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi and dozens of rank-and-file lawmakers from his own party. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
From left, Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., Rep. David E. Price, D-NC., and Rep. Danny Davis, R-Ill., arrive for a meeting with President Barack Obama and other House Democrats on Capitol Hill in Washington, Friday, June 12, 2015. The president made an 11th-hour appeal to dubious Democrats on Friday in a tense run-up to a House showdown on legislation to strengthen his hand in global trade talks. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
Rep. Bobby Rush, D-Ill., left, and Rep. Sanford D. Bishop, Jr., D-Ga., arrive for a meeting with President Barack Obama and other House Democrats on Capitol Hill in Washington, Friday, June 12, 2015. The president made an 11th-hour appeal to dubious Democrats on Friday in a tense run-up to a House showdown on legislation to strengthen his hand in global trade talks. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 12: House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) (L) walks through the halls of Congress before a series of critical votes at the US Capitol June 12, 2015 in Washington, DC. House Democrats voted down legislation that would grant aid to workers displaced by trade, dealing a potentially fatal blow to the fast-track legislation. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 12: House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) walks through the halls of Congress before a series of critical votes at the US Capitol June 12, 2015 in Washington, DC. House Democrats voted down legislation that would grant aid to workers displaced by trade, dealing a potentially fatal blow to the fast-track legislation. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
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The same 28 House Democrats who previously backed Obama's bid for "fast track" negotiating authority held firm, despite withering criticism from unions and liberal groups. Under that authority, a president can negotiate liberalized trade deals that Congress can only approve or reject, not change.

Opponents of Obama's path on trade now are focusing on 14 Democratic senators who backed fast track earlier, and will be needed again when the Senate revisits the issue this month. There were no open signs of erosion Thursday, although Democrats are demanding inclusion of a job retraining program, with details of it still incomplete.

House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said Republicans are committed to ensuring that the negotiating authority and retraining program pass for Obama's signature into law.

Corporate groups and other free-trade supporters hailed the House vote Thursday approving the negotiating authority. It passed 218-208, proving the importance of the 28 Democratic supporters.

"This vote is a huge step with the administration and for a nation which rejects isolationism and protectionism," said Gary Shapiro, president of the Consumer Electronics Association.

Liberal groups fumed.

"A handful of turncoat Democrats" who backed the legislation "should know that we will not lift a finger or raise a penny to protect you when you're attacked in 2016," said Jim Dean of Democracy for America. He said the group will try to oust those lawmakers in future Democratic primaries.

Lawmakers agree that major trade deals, including the long-negotiated Trans-Pacific Partnership, cannot be completed unless negotiating partners know that Congress won't tinker with the final agreement. Previous presidents have negotiated such deals with fast-track authority.

Democratic opposition to free trade has grown since the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA, lowered barriers with Canada and Mexico.

Republicans, and pro-trade Democratic presidents such as Obama and Bill Clinton, have tried to ease concerns by offering a union-backed program, Trade Adjustment Assistance, that provides help to workers displaced by trade.

Many Republicans consider it wasteful but a reasonable price for Democrats' help on liberalized trade.

That strategy seemed sound last month, when the Senate passed a bill that linked the assistance with the negotiating authority.

House Democrats sabotaged that last week, however. They voted to kill the worker assistance program in order to derail the fast track. The stinging rebuke of Obama forced Republican leaders to repackage the trade legislation and try again.

That worked as the House passed the new bill, which dealt solely with the negotiating authority.

Pro-trade forces hope for similar results in the Republican-dominated Senate, perhaps as early as next week.

Last month, the Senate passed legislation that combined fast track with worker assistance, getting two more votes than needed to stop fatal delaying tactics by opponents. Support from the 14 Democratic senators who backed the bill was vital to that victory and Obama's backers are keen to hold them.

Most if not all of the 14 say it's crucial that Congress approve, and Obama sign, a renewal of the trade adjustment assistance in conjunction with the negotiating authority.

Some of fast track's staunchest opponents say it's inconceivable to negotiate a lowering of trade barriers without looking after those who lose their jobs.

"I can't believe Congress would vote for a trade agreement and not help these workers," said Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio. "It's morally shameful not to take care of these workers."

Brown said the Senate shouldn't vote on fast track until that assistance "is locked down."

Other opponents of fast track were ready to move to other issues. "I think most Democrats, at the end of the day, realize that we now have an even more important obligation" to pass the assistance bill along with fast track, said Rep. Steve Israel, D-N.Y. Dwelling on a procedural process that divides Obama and House Democrats, he said, is "not a good message. So we need to put the period at the end of the sentence and move on to another topic."

And White House spokesman Eric Schultz said: "The only strategy that we support moving through Congress is one that includes both of those pieces getting to his desk for his signature."

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