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House rejects trade bill, a setback for Obama's agenda

WASHINGTON -- Led by union-backed Democrats, the House delivered a stinging blow to President Barack Obama Friday and left his ambitious global trade agenda in serious doubt.

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

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

Not only did they reject him by the dozens, they were led by party leader Nancy Pelosi of California. Their tactic was voting against a favorite job-retraining program to imperil the trade package's key component: "fast track" negotiating authority for Obama.

The House voted 219-211 for fast track, but that could go nowhere without the first part. Only 28 Democrats joined 191 Republicans in voting for it. Voting no were 54 Republicans and 157 Democrats.

The key vote came when 144 House Democrats joined 158 Republicans to reject extension of a program that helps workers who lose their jobs to international trade -- long a priority for Democrats and unions.

Hours earlier, Obama had specifically asked Democrats not to do that. But in a crowded House chamber, Pelosi urged her colleagues to ignore him.

"Slow down the fast track to get a better deal for the American people," she said, drawing praise from labor unions and others who say free-trade deals send U.S. jobs abroad.

Most of the Long Island delegation voted as expected, including Rep. Kathleen Rice (D-Garden City), who created an uproar among her union and progressive supporters by flipping from opposing fast track authority to supporting it.

Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley) had seemed to indicate he would vote for the measure after signing a letter in March urging a swift vote on fast track authority, but Friday he voted no on both sections of the bill. He cited "thousands of constituents in New York's First Congressional District who contacted me almost entirely in opposition" and "serious questions still outstanding on the merits" of the legislation.

He added he is for free trade, but said the president should only negotiate agreements with clear direction from Congress. He also proposed holding back that authority until the next president takes office.

Other presidents have had fast track authority, which lets them propose trade agreements that Congress can ratify or reject but not amend. The administration currently is trying to conclude negotiations with 11 Pacific-rim countries including Japan and Canada. Other trade agreements could follow.

Obama says globalization, technological advances and other changes in recent years make expanded trade essential.

One possible route for pro-trade forces in Congress is to send revised legislation back to the Senate. But senators approved the larger package only narrowly last month after intense battles, and the White House desperately wants to avoid giving opponents there another chance to strangle the legislation.

White House spokesman Josh Earnest said yesterday's vote showed congressional support for fast track, and "our work is not done yet." As for Democrats rejecting the retraining program, he said, the administration will contend "they have registered their objections to [fast track] and it didn't work."

With Tom Brune


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