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Trade illustrates divide between Obama, Democrats

Associated Press logoAssociated Press 5/13/2015 By ERICA WERNER, Associated Press

Elizabeth Warren: FILE - In this Feb. 24, 2015 file photo, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass. is seen on Capitol Hill in Washington. Senate leaders said Tuesday that Democrats have enough votes to block action on President Barack Obama's trade initiatives unless the parties can work out disagreements on how to package various bills. Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio, a strong opponent of Obama’s trade agenda, said Democrats have more than enough votes to block action for now. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, agreed.

FILE - In this Feb. 24, 2015 file photo, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass. is seen on Capitol Hill in Washington. Senate leaders said Tuesday that Democrats have enough votes to block action on President Barack Obama's trade initiatives unless the parties can work out disagreements on how to package various bills. Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio, a strong opponent of Obama’s trade agenda, said Democrats have more than enough votes to block action for now. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, agreed.
© AP Photo/Susan Walsh, File

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama poured intense effort into lobbying fellow Democrats on trade. They repudiated him nearly unanimously.

Every Democratic senator except one, Delaware's Tom Carper, voted against moving forward on legislation Tuesday to award Obama "fast track" authority to negotiate trade deals that can pass Congress without being amended. The vote failed 52-45, falling eight short of the 60 votes needed and dealing a stinging setback to the centerpiece of Obama's second-term economic agenda, his hopes for a landmark pact with Asian nations.

Although the White House and senators of both parties are already working to revive the legislation, the outcome stunned the Capitol and highlighted Democratic divisions on trade heading into a presidential election year with control of the Senate at stake. Obama says it's essential for U.S. goods and services to have easier access to other countries in a globalizing economy, while many Democrats and the labor unions that back them still feel the pain of job losses they blame on earlier trade deals and fear more could be yet to come.

Tuesday's vote also laid bare the strained relations between Obama and Democrats on Capitol Hill, who have spent years complaining of neglect by a president who tends grudgingly, if at all, to the relationship-building aspects of politics.

The president's tough sell on the trade legislation included Oval Office meetings, flights on Air Force One, promises of political support and concerted outreach by officials from Vice President Joe Biden on down. Obama mounted a public relations campaign to exert pressure, attacking his Democratic opponents as "wrong" in interviews and speeches, and even directly engaging liberal standard-bearer Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, dismissing her over the weekend as "a politician like everybody else."

None of it worked. And for a president grasping for a final legacy achievement in the waning years of his administration, with Congress fully controlled by the opposition party, his inability to gather more than a sole Democratic supporter to move forward stood as an embarrassing rebuke.

"It is the president's party," said GOP Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah. "It's amazing to me that they would do this to the president on a bill of this magnitude."

The White House downplayed the turmoil.

"It is not unprecedented, to say the least, for the United States Senate to encounter procedural snafus," Press Secretary Josh Earnest said ahead of the vote. "I would urge you to withhold judgment about the president's persuasion ability until we've had an opportunity to try to advance this piece of legislation through the Senate."

Indeed, Obama went to work soon after the vote failed to revive the issue, summoning key Democrats to the White House to discuss possible strategies. Democrats said they had agreed to drop a contentious provision aimed at cracking down on countries that manipulate their currency, though it was uncertain that would resolve the impasse.

There are a half-dozen or more Democrats who are prepared to support the trade legislation, but the issue got caught in a procedural thicket in recent days as Democrats claimed Republicans had agreed to package several related trade measures together, including the currency piece and other worker protections. Republicans insisted there'd been no such deal, and Democrats privately grumbled Tuesday that the White House should have gotten involved in sorting out the mess but refused to, believing enough Democratic supporters could be picked off.

Several Democrats also complained about Obama's attacks on members of his own party and his criticism of Warren. Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio, a strong opponent on trade, called it "disrespectful."

For others, Obama's courtship, coming without a deep reservoir of support to build on, had simply failed to persuade.

Sen. Chris Coons of Delaware said he had never set foot in the Oval Office as a senator before he and other lawmakers met with Obama there last week on trade.

"Any time an administration is seeking to advance its objectives," Coons said, "broad and deep relationships are helpful."

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