House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and fellow Democrats last week handed President Barack Obama the worst intraparty defeat of his administration. They joined Republicans to block legislation that would smooth the path for the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade deal among a dozen nations that is the centerpiece of the president’s foreign policy “pivot” to Asia. Over bowls of ice cream, she sat down on Tuesday with me in her Capitol office to discuss the stalemate. What follows is a condensed, edited transcript of our conversation.
HARWOOD: Let me ask you about what happened on Friday. In all the time that I’ve covered you, that was the first circumstance where I looked at you and thought, she has lost control of the situation. The conclusion that I drew was that you had been overrun by your caucus.
PELOSI: We really handled that with great care and respect for all points of view. I’ve had a problem since NAFTA with fast track. I don’t think it’s even necessary. It’s a convenience for the administration, it’s an advantage for the business community, but it’s a hardship for workers, because it just isn’t fair. And especially for us, because it was negotiated some place with Republicans. I went into it, when I said I’m trying to find a road to “yes,” the indication was, I wasn’t at “yes,” right? A road to “yes” doesn’t mean we’re at yes. And I don’t know how people hear things.
HARWOOD: Did you tell the president that morning that you were going to give the speech that you gave on the floor? Have you spoken to the president since? Is he angry with you?
PELOSI: I’d rather not talk about my conversations with the president. But his administration was fabulous in terms of supplying information. The trade representative, Cabinet officers, others coming in to answer questions. But this has reached a tipping point. I wrote today in theUSA Today, we need a new paradigm. We have conferences on this, that and the other, the G-7, the G-8, the G-20, the G-whiz. Why are they not talking about how we can have fair trade that lifts everyone up, instead of trickle down on trade that advantages many—some, and is questionable in terms of its advantage to some? Now I’ve represented a city built on trade. But don’t ask us to up or down the vote on fast track. That was too much.
HARWOOD: One of the headlines said, “Pelosi Knifes Obama.”
PELOSI: Well that’s not fair, that’s just not fair.
“The Republicans are projecting their own dysfunction on us. They wouldn’t know a unified party if they saw one, except the rubber stamp that they have when they have a Republican president. This isn’t the Grand Old Party that’s done so much for our country, provided so much great leadership.”
HARWOOD: But if you stood on the floor on Friday and said, “I trust the president to negotiate the best possible deal for American workers, vote for Trade Adjustment Assistance,” wouldn’t it have passed?
PELOSI: Oh, I don’t think so. I mean I had to say what I believed. I said to members all along, do what you believe. And I said to other members, when other people make a decision different than you, I always say love one another. They always think that’s weird when I say that to them. But my definition in terms of a caucus is “Let Other Versions Exist.” Our caucus is very unified.
HARWOOD: People are talking about a civil war in the Democratic caucus.
PELOSI: The Republicans are projecting their own dysfunction on us. They wouldn’t know a unified party if they saw one, except the rubber stamp that they have when they have a Republican president. This isn’t the Grand Old Party that’s done so much for our country, provided so much great leadership.
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HARWOOD: The last two Democratic Presidents, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, have both continued to press forward on trade expansion. These are people who share your values, who share your approach to helping average families. Why isn’t that pretty good evidence that it is in the national interest, and that your members are playing the same kind of kowtowing-to-the-base politics that you often accuse the Republicans of doing?
PELOSI: No, I accuse them of kowtowing to the monied interests in our country. But let me say this—we’re not a parliamentary system. We’re a presidential system. Many of our members have their own experience with these issues, long before this president came. And we go home and I say this, we go home every weekend, and we put our hand on a very hot stove. This is retail, we are where the people are. And they are feeling the pain. And they continue to feel the pain.
“I certainly trust the president, and I think all of our members trust the president. We disagree with the president on that because this TPP has not even been completed. And people can reserve the right to take a look at that when we see it.”
HARWOOD: He says that this trade deal is the most progressive that’s ever been negotiated, and will actually help workers rather than hurt them. But you don’t trust him in his assertion that this deal is good for middle-class economics.
PELOSI: Being the most progressive is not a high standard. Because they haven’t been progressive at all. Being better than the status quo is not. A missed opportunity is what I think it is. This is an opportunity for us to do something really spectacular in terms of trade. To dispense with the stale arguments of protectionism. People aren’t protectionists. They may be labelled that. They know we live in a global economy and that we have to succeed there and we have to make certain decisions to do so. It’s about globalization, which is more than trade. I mentioned all the things earlier that have been part of the success of the Obama administration, but it hasn’t hit home for people. They are still very scarred by 2008, when their jobs were in jeopardy, their homes were underwater, they were living on their savings. If they lost their job, their ability to send their children to college was at risk. And so, our being a consumer economy, we need consumer confidence.
I certainly trust the president, and I think all of our members trust the president. We disagree with the president on that because this TPP has not even been completed. And people can reserve the right to take a look at that when we see it.
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HARWOOD: What we’re going through now would allow it to be completed.
PELOSI: It can be completed without it. I have great confidence in the ability of our country to negotiate. Since President Bush there has been no fast track.
“These are our constituents. And I’ll take you with me to my district, we’ll go to church, we’ll go to a parade, any place, the dry cleaners. And you will be very surprised at how everyday people who are not connected to any organized organizations, who come up and say don’t vote for that.”
HARWOOD: Are you concerned that blocking the president on this front weakens him, and could weaken U.S. leadership in the world?
PELOSI: What you saw on the floor on Friday was an expression of concern of the American people. We are representatives. That is our title, and that is our job description. These are our constituents. And I’ll take you with me to my district, we’ll go to church, we’ll go to a parade, any place, the dry cleaners. And you will be very surprised at how everyday people who are not connected to any organized organizations, who come up and say don’t vote for that.
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HARWOOD: Do you think this will get worked out in the end, and that the president will have that agreement before he leaves office?
PELOSI: The TPP? That’s up to them, that depends on how fast they go. But I think they have to accelerate the pace. But again, let’s take this to a bigger place. even the pope is talking about climate, and the poor. Those who thought people who didn’t want trade agreements were Luddites have become Luddites. They’re thinking business as usual, and we’re saying there are various elements of concern about this. Some are from labor, some are from environmental groups, some are from the religious community who has lobbied us on this. But it all comes back to, does this make a bigger paycheck for the American worker. NAFTA did not, and our experience is not good. That was a long time ago when it passed, the president was in law school, but the impact now is being felt in many places.