WASHINGTON (AP) — As the White House pleads with House Democrats for votes on trade, President Barack Obama is sweetening the deal with an offer of presidential campaign support if Democrats come under fire for their votes from unions and liberals in 2016.
Obama has given personal assurances to Democratic lawmakers that they'll have his strong support next year if they vote yes on granting him the authority he says he needs to negotiate the best trade deals with Europe and the Asia-Pacific region. At the same time, White House officials have sought to differentiate Obama's offer from the more heavy-handed tactics they say the unions are deploying to scare Democrats — like attack ads and public rallies outside their offices.
"I intend to get it done," Obama said this week.
Days from a critical House vote, it's still far from certain Obama can muster enough votes. The Senate narrowly passed the bill, but it still appears to be more than a dozen votes short in the House, where leaders are hoping for a vote later this week. In a political twist for Obama, most Republicans support the bill while most Democrats oppose it.
Although House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi has warned not to expect any additional votes from Democrats, House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Paul Ryan told The Associated Press on Tuesday that Democrats had added to the roughly 18 of their members willing to vote for the package.
"They have a few more than that but we need them to deliver more than they've publicly announced," Ryan, R-Wis., said in an interview. "We're adding to our yes column. We're very close. They're going to have to deliver their side."
In an attempt to deliver Democratic votes, Obama has been dangling a carrot in front of Democrats in the form of a promise to campaign for them in 2016 if they face primary challenges or attacks by unions that have vehemently opposed his trade agenda.
Yet Obama's transactional offer — campaign help in exchange for a "yes" vote — leads to a broader question: Will Democrats even want Obama campaigning for them in 2016?
Last year, most Democrats in competitive districts wanted the president to stay away, concerned that his sagging popularity made him more of a political liability than an asset among independent and Republican-leaning voters. In San Diego, where unions are lobbying Democratic Rep. Scott Peters to vote against trade, Gretchen Newsom of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers said the unions' powerful get-out-the-vote operation will be much more valuable next year than a "celebrity endorsement" from Obama.
But Obama administration officials said Democratic lawmakers have told the White House they want the president out front, making the case in their districts and on national television to help provide political cover. They pointed to recent polling from the Pew Research Center showing that more Democrats believe past trade deals have helped the U.S. rather than hurt it.
Dan Pfeiffer, until recently Obama's long-serving senior adviser, said Obama's enduring popularity with die-hard Democrats would make him a huge asset in next year's primaries.
"He offers fundraising and organizational muscle like no one else other than the Democratic nominee, who will be otherwise occupied," Pfeiffer said.
To be sure, Obama will likely remain a fundraising powerhouse for Democrats even as the party's enthusiasm shifts to Hillary Rodham Clinton and her competitors for the 2016 Democratic nomination. And in a few districts, particularly those occupied by members of the Congressional Black Caucus, Obama's endorsement could go a long way toward inoculating Democrats who come under fire from unions and liberals if they vote for trade.
Such a scenario could put the president and the unions — traditionally close Obama allies — on opposing sides of Democratic primary fights heading into the final months of Obama's presidency.
"We're trying to not make this about the president," Bill Samuel, the AFL-CIO's chief lobbyist, said in an interview. Still, he warned, "It's going to be hard for us to convince working families to vote for members of Congress who voted to jeopardize their jobs and their incomes, even if we wanted to."
On Tuesday, the AFL-CIO launched a television ad attacking freshman Rep. Kathleen Rice, D-N.Y., who announced her support for the bill over the weekend after previously stating she was opposed. The union said Tuesday it was spending upward of $100,000 on the ad, which questions whether voters could ever trust Rice again.
Obama is seeking legislation that would allow Congress to approve or reject — but not modify — a pair of trade deals he's negotiating with countries in Europe and the Asia-Pacific region. Obama argues the legislation is imperative to negotiating the best possible deal because foreign leaders want assurance that Congress won't scuttle the deal at the last minute.
Associated Press writer Laurie Kellman contributed to this report.
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