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Hillary Clinton finally weighs in on trade, complicating Obama’s push

Democratic presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton Democratic presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton
Democratic presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton Photograph by Scott Olson—Getty Images

Surveying the smoldering wreckage of President Obama’s trade agenda on Friday afternoon, House Republican leaders said the burden would be on the White House to somehow resurrect it in time for a re-vote in the chamber early this week.

Three days later, it doesn’t appear that pro-trade forces are any closer to forging a path forward. In fact, prospects are only dimmer for finding Democratic converts to hand President Obama fast-track negotiating authority, after Hillary Clinton broke her long silence on the issue Sunday by appearing to cast her lot with trade skeptics.

The position that Clinton articulated — at a rally in Des Moines and then, later, at a house party in Burlington, Iowa — was nuanced and indirect, but it amounted to a criticism of the president she once served and an endorsement of the House Democrats, namely Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who sunk his initiative with their Friday mutiny.

The front-running Democratic presidential contender said she’d so far hugged the sidelines of the debate, amid intensifying criticism from some in the party that she was dodging a defining issue, because she wanted to let it play out in Congress. “But now I think the president and his team could have the chance to drive a harder bargain,” she said.

For the most part, Clinton addressed her criticism to the Trans Pacific Partnership, the 12-nation mega-deal that the White House is seeking a freer hand to hammer out with its foreign counterparties. What imploded on Friday was a procedural measure that would have strengthened Obama’s ability to do so by guaranteeing that the finished product gets a simple up-or-down vote in Congress, rather than being ripped open and redrawn by legislators. House Democrats tanked it by voting down a separate-but-linked package extending assistance to workers displaced by imports — typically a Democratic priority that anti-trade liberals effectively took hostage to freeze the debate in its tracks.

Clinton ignored the procedure in question, officially known as trade promotion authority, in her Sunday comments. But throughout the day, she repeatedly invoked Pelosi, a traditionally stout Obama ally whose last-minute defection before the Friday vote stunned the White House and sealed the package’s fate. “The president should listen to and work with his allies in Congress, starting with Nancy Pelosi, who have expressed their concerns about the impact that a weak agreement would have on our workers to make sure we get the best strongest deal possible,” Clinton told a crowd at the Iowa State Fairgrounds in Des Moines. And later, at the house party, she expanded on the thought: ““My view is the White House should call Nancy and a few other of the Democrats to say, ‘What would it take to get an agreement that would be better and not worse for American workers?’”

If Pelosi’s desertion helped crater support within her own ranks in the Capitol, Clinton following suit will reinforce with a much wider audience that Obama stands alone in his party in pushing for a pact he views as the cornerstone of his second-term agenda both at home and abroad.

Sources close to the corporate lobby promoting the deal on Monday said there was no meaningful progress made over the weekend toward reviving it and next steps remained murky.