Conservatives to the rescue: Obama's health care, trade wins

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Obama: The Affordable Care Act Is Here to Stay

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Cracking the often-lamented partisanship of Washington, a Republican-led Congress and a conservative Supreme Court chief justice delivered back-to-back victories for President Barack Obama's ambitious trade and health care initiatives.

The Supreme Court, in an opinion written by Chief Justice John Roberts, upheld a key provision of the Affordable Care Act on Thursday, thus salvaging Obama's top domestic policy achievement. A day earlier, Republican leaders helped maneuver legislation that gives Obama greater power to negotiate international trade deals, and rescued a key item of his second-term agenda.

READ: Obama says health law now "woven into fabric of America"

Obama's successes were in no small measure the work of a Republican leadership he has often decried as obstructionist and from a chief justice whose nomination Obama once opposed.

"This was a good day for America," Obama declared in heralding the high court's decision.

It was an opinion many Republicans quickly countered with continued vows to repeal and replace the law.

As if to underscore the legacy-cementing nature of the court's ruling, Obama cast the health care law in historic terms. Thirty years ago, he noted, the nation established Social Security to lift older Americans out of poverty, and two decades ago it adopted Medicare to offer them health care.

"This generation of Americans chose to finish the job," he said.

SEE MORE: The debate on Obamacare leading up to Thursday's Supreme Court decision

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Conservatives to the rescue: Obama's health care, trade wins
MIAMI, FL - DECEMBER 15: A person walks into the UniVista Insurance company office where people are signing up for health care plans under the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, on December 15, 2015 in Miami, Florida. Today, is the deadline to sign up for a plan under the Affordable Care Act for people that want to be insured on January 1, 2016. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
House Health subcommittee member Rep. Diane Black, R-Tenn., questions Dr. Mandy Cohen, chief of staff, Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, during a hearing on the state of Obamacare's CO-OP Program, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2015. The argument at the hearing was the Obama administration's most direct response to a wave of seven co-ops closing in Oct., 2015. (AP Photo/Cliff Owen)
US President Barack Obama speaks about healthcare reforms and the Affordable Care Act, known as Obamacare, during the Catholic Hospital Association Conference in Washington, DC, June 9, 2015. AFP PHOTO / SAUL LOEB (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)
President Barack Obama speaks during Catholic Hospital Association Conference in Washington on Tuesday, June 9, 2015. Obama defended the health care overhaul just days ahead of an anticipated decision by the Supreme Court that could eliminate health care for millions of people. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)
WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 04: Supporters of the Affordable Care Act gather in front of the U.S Supreme Court during a rally March 4, 2015 in Washington, DC. The Supreme Court was scheduled to hear oral arguments in the case of King v. Burwell that could determine the fate of health care subsidies for as many as eight million people. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
Protestors hold placards challenging 'Obamacare' outside of the US Supreme Court on March 4, 2015 in Washington, DC. The US Supreme Court faces a momentous case Wednesday on the sweeping health insurance reform law that President Barack Obama wants to leave as part of his legacy. The question before the court is whether the seven million people or more who subscribed via the government's website can obtain tax subsidies that make the coverage affordable. A ruling is expected in June. AFP PHOTO/MANDEL NGAN (Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 04: Supporters of the Affordable Care Act gather in front of the U.S Supreme Court during a rally March 4, 2015 in Washington, DC. The Supreme Court was scheduled to hear oral arguments in the case of King v. Burwell that could determine the fate of health care subsidies for as many as eight million people. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
Speaker of the House John Boehner, R-Ohio, returns to his office after the House voted to repeal the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, at the Capitol in Washington, Tuesday, Feb. 3, 2015. The Republican-controlled House voted along party lines to repeal the health care law that stands as President Barack Obama's signature domestic achievement, but this time the bill carried instructions for several committees to replace "Obamacare" with new policies. The legislation now goes to the Senate, where it is unlikely to pass, and even if it does, Obama has threatened a veto. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
A graph and details on health care costs and the Affordable Care Act are seen in President Barack Obama's new $4 trillion budget plan that was sent to Congress today, on Capitol Hill in Washington, early Monday, Feb. 02, 2015. The fiscal blueprint, for the budget year that begins Oct. 1, seeks to raise taxes on wealthier Americans and corporations and use the extra income to lift the fortunes of families who have felt squeezed during tough economic times. Republicans, who now hold the power in Congress, are accusing the president of seeking to revert to tax-and-spend policies that will harm the economy while failing to do anything about soaring spending on government benefit programs. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
House Rules Committee Chairman Pete Sessions, R-Texas, opens a meeting of the House Rules Committee as the panel prepares a bill to repeal the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, often called Obamacare, that is scheduled to go to the floor this week, at the Capitol in Washington, Monday, Feb. 02, 2015. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
Rep. Michael C. Burgess, R-Texas, left, joined by Rep. Frank Pallone Jr., D-N.J., right, testifies as the House Rules Committee prepares a bill to repeal the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, often called Obamacare, that is scheduled to go to the floor this week, at the Capitol in Washington, Monday, Feb. 2, 2015. Burgess, a medical doctor, is a member of the House Subcommittee on Health which has jurisdiction in matters of health insurance. Pallone is the top Democrat on the Health Subcommittee. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
FILE - In this file photo taken with a fisheye lens April 6, 2013, Arkansas legislators meet in the House chamber at the Arkansas state Capitol in Little Rock, Ark. Arkansas Gov. A wave of newly elected Republican lawmakers who ran on vows to fight so-called Obamacare, including the state’s “private option” Medicaid expansion, has raised doubts about the future of a leading model for conservative states to gradually adapt to the federal health care law. (AP Photo/Danny Johnston, File)
Rep. Steve Stivers, R-Ohio, a member of the House Rules Committee, makes a point as the panel prepares a bill to repeal the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, often called Obamacare, that is scheduled to go to the floor this week, at the Capitol in Washington, Monday, Feb. 2, 2015. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
President Barack Obama gestures as he speaks to the Catholic Hospital Association Conference at the Washington Marriott Wardman Park in Washington, Tuesday, June 9, 2015. Obama declared that his 5-year-old health care law is firmly established as the "reality" of health care in America, even as he awaits a Supreme Court ruling that could undermine it. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
US President Barack Obama speaks about healthcare reforms and the Affordable Care Act, known as Obamacare, during the Catholic Hospital Association Conference in Washington, DC, June 9, 2015. AFP PHOTO / SAUL LOEB (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 04: Five-year-old James Cook of Cleveland, Ohio, participates in a rally to support the Affordable Care Act in front of the U.S Supreme Court March 4, 2015 in Washington, DC. The Supreme Court was scheduled to hear oral arguments in the case of King v. Burwell that could determine the fate of health care subsidies for as many as eight million people. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
FILE - In this March 25, 2015, file photo, Margot Riphagen, of New Orleans, wears a birth control pills costume as she protests in front of the Supreme Court in Washington, as the court heard oral arguments in the challenges of President Barack Obama's health care law requirement that businesses provide their female employees with health insurance that includes access to contraceptives. Some insurance plans offered on the health marketplaces violate the law’s requirements for women’s health, according to a new report from a women’s legal advocacy group. The National Women’s Law Center analyzed plans in 15 states over two years and found some excluded dependents from maternity coverage, prohibited coverage of breast pumps or failed to cover all federally approved birth control methods. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak, File)
WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 04: Supporters of the Affordable Care Act gather in front of the U.S Supreme Court during a rally March 4, 2015 in Washington, DC. The Supreme Court was scheduled to hear oral arguments in the case of King v. Burwell that could determine the fate of health care subsidies for as many as eight million people. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
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The ruling came as the White House was already savoring the Senate's passage Wednesday of fast-track trade authority that gives Congress the right to approve or reject international economic agreement, but not change or delay them. The House passed the legislation last week.

That vote came two weeks after Obama's own Democratic Party dealt him an embarrassing defeat on trade, and it sets the stage for Obama's real prize: conclusion of a 12-nation Pacific Rim trade pact that is crucial to his effort to expand U.S. influence in Asia.

Trade experts believe Obama's negotiators could finish the deal by early fall and that Congress could vote on it by year's end.

That Republicans agreed to give such authority to a president they believe has already exceeded his powers was as remarkable as Obama's decision to push his trade agenda against all-out opposition from labor and his party's liberal base.

In the process Obama has left erstwhile allies seething.

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka echoed the sentiment of many Democrats when he said in a letter to lawmakers Wednesday that Obama seemed more intent on getting negotiating authority than in securing tougher trade enforcement and currency provisions and a better assistance package for dislocated workers.

"It hasn't been easy," said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. "We had plenty of bumps along the road. Frankly, a few big potholes, too. But we worked across the aisle to get through all of them."

Obama's success came at a sensitive moment in his presidency. Still in the balance is the push to meet a June 30 deadline to conclude an agreement aimed at containing Iran's nuclear program.

Experts said Obama's trade agenda would stand out as a milestone in a foreign policy largely focused on crises abroad, particularly in the Middle East and in Ukraine.

"It's not an exaggeration to say that a successful rebalancing strategy toward Asia would likely rank among President Obama's most significant elements of his legacy," said Matthew Goodman, a former Asia and economic specialist at the White House during Obama's first term.

The trade pact under negotiation links the U.S. with 11 other countries arrayed along the Pacific Rim, including Chile, Mexico, Japan, Vietnam and Australia. The agreement would lower tariffs and other trade barriers while also setting labor and environmental standards for all its participants.

Obama and trade advocates maintained the deal would open up vast new markets to American goods, particularly in Asia where China is negotiating its own regional trade agreement. But Democrats and labor fiercely argued that the deal would help big business, cost jobs and not provide adequate standards enforcement.

The issue created a rare alliance among Obama, McConnell and House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio. Also instrumental was House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, the Wisconsin Republican who was Mitt Romney's running mate in the 2012 presidential contest.

The challenge for Obama was to attract enough Democrats who would break with labor to overcome procedural obstacles in the Senate and make up for Republican opposition in the House. For Republican leaders, the struggle was keeping conservative opposition to Obama at a minimum.

"We had to deal with this notion of aren't we giving up our power under the Constitution?" said Republican John Engler, a former Michigan governor who now heads the Business Roundtable, which helped lead the pro-trade lobbying effort.

Two weeks ago, House Democrats temporarily scuttled the legislation by defeating a companion measure that would aid workers displaced by trade; that's something Democrats typically have backed.

Headlines called it a major setback for Obama. But the support for fast-track authority was already evident in a separate vote. Obama, McConnell and Boehner agreed to split up the trade and worker assistance components into separate bills and put them to a vote.

By Wednesday, House Democrats all but conceded defeat, with many saying they would now support the worker assistance package set for a vote Thursday.

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