WASHINGTON — The trade defeat in Congress was an ominous sign in a month of challenges that could help determine President Barack Obama’s standing for the rest of his second term.
Fellow Democrats rebuffed last-minute appeals to rescue his global trade agenda, and the House seriously damaged Obama’s chances of capping his presidency with a groundbreaking economic pact involving Pacific Rim countries.
Obama also is awaiting a Supreme Court decision that could upend his health care law, and he faces a June 30 deadline to conclude an accord that aims to curb Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
Friday’s setback was the result of a complicated legislative strategy that linked passage of trade negotiating powers for the president with a measure that would provide training and assistance to American workers who lost jobs because of trade.
A narrow House majority voted to give the president the right to negotiate deals that Congress can approve or reject, but not change. Then a large majority of Democrats, eager to kill that negotiating power, joined a majority of Republicans to vote against the aid for workers.
The White House drew attention to the close passage of the trade negotiation piece and noted that the legislation had overcome similar difficulties in the Senate.
“I’m tempted to walk out here and say that it’s deja vu all over again,” presidential spokesman Josh Earnest said.
But Obama’s struggles raised fresh questions about his ability to hold sway over members of his own party.
He made a surprise visit Thursday to watch lawmakers’ annual charity baseball game. Obama brought a case of his White House beer for the winners
He made a rare trip to the Capitol to meet with House Democrats on Friday morning. Asked as he emerged if he had changed any minds, Obama replied, “It’s just a question if I changed votes.”
Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., a critic of the trade legislation, offered a blistering critique: “He’s ignored Congress and disrespected Congress for years and then he shows up at the baseball game with homemade beer, and then comes to the caucus and lectures us for 40 minutes about his values and whether or not we’re being honest by using legislative tactics to try and stop something which we believe is a horrible mistake for the United States of America and questions our integrity.”
DeFazio added, “It wasn’t the greatest strategy.”
At issue in the health care case before the Supreme Court case is whether Congress authorized federal subsidy payments for health care coverage regardless of where people live, or only for residents of states that created their own insurance marketplaces. Nearly 6.4 million low- and moderate-income people could lose coverage if the court rules those enrolled through the federal site aren’t eligible for the subsidies.
Obama says the 5-year-old law is well established and that the case against it is so flimsy that the court should not even have considered it.
“This is now part of the fabric of how we care for one another,” he said this past week.
On Iran, negotiators from the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Russia, China and Iran face a month’s end deadline to finalize a deal aimed at curbing Tehran’s ability to build a nuclear bomb.
Iran denies any nuclear weapon ambitions and says its nuclear program is meant for power and other peaceful purposes.
Obama has already come under criticism from some U.S. allies in the Middle East and members of Congress who say the administration has conceded too much.
But the talks provided the White House with an opportunity Friday to suggest that relations with House Democrats aren’t as sour as the trade vote might suggest.
Spokesman Earnest noted that nearly every House Democrat signed a letter last month voicing support for Obama’s efforts to complete a deal with Iran.