Rep. Gerry Connolly, Pro-Trade Warrior, Discusses the Fight for the Pacific Trade Deal

A demonstrator holds a sign as nurses rally outside the offices of Senator Dianne Feinstein's office to urge her to vote against fast track authority for negotiating the Trans-Pacific Partnership, in San Diego on June 22, 2015. Mike Blake/Reuters

President Obama Obama's international trade agenda has had several near-death experiences over the past month, mostly thanks to his own party. But at long last, Congress appears to have a found a path to get trade authorization legislation to the president's desk, a necessity for the U.S. to seal the major, 12-country Asia-Pacific trade deal known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP.

That's a top priority for Obama in his second term, but one that looked to be in jeopardy after House Democrats killed legislation earlier this month to give the Obama administration the green light to finalize the deal. Under the legislation, known as Trade Promotion Authority (TPA) or "fast track," Congress gets a vote on the finished trade agreement but cannot amend it.

But the House brought it back last week, in a narrow 218-208 vote. Democratic Representative Gerry Connolly of Virginia was one of 28 House Democrats to support the legislation, known as TPA for short. Along with roughly a dozen pro-trade Democrats in the Senate, they have been pivotal to the negotiations in Congress, including a flurry of meetings at the White House last week to revive the legislation.

Democrats want to make sure that Congress also passes a companion bill, called Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA), to help workers who stand to be negatively affected by the TPP accord. Republicans think this is a waste of money but are willing to swallow it to pass the Asia-Pacific agreement. Ultimately, the question comes down to whether this small band of Democrats are willing to trust the Republican leaders on Capitol Hill to live up to their end of the deal to pass both TPA and TAA. The 28 House Democrats decided to, and now Senate Democrats will get their turn when the Senate votes this week.

In a conversation with Newsweek, Connolly explains why he took that leap of faith and dissects the root of his party's division on free trade. And while he acknowledges the deal that trade supporters have cobbled together in Congress is fragile, he's cautiously optimistic that their strategy will deliver and that the Senate will pass the bills as well.

President Obama has really struggled to get Democratic support on this trade bill. Why do you think so many members of his own party have gone against him on this?

A lot of Democrats represent economically distressed areas of America, right? Inner cities, Rust Belt communities, parts of western Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan that have really been hurt by globalization. It's very hard to say, "I'm going to vote for that," even if objectively trade isn't the culprit but has been made the symbol of the loss that we grieve. Trade no more or less than technology creates and de-creates jobs.

As a member, I'm weighing loyalty to [the president] with the real economic imperatives of my district. When that's the choice, the district always comes first, no matter who's in the White House. So it's a little overstated that we rebuffed the president. That's an easy headline to write, but it doesn't really capture the dynamic.

Do you think the rising concerns about economic inequality have fanned the unease about free trade?

Oh sure. I think Democrats, though not this one, believe that trade contributes to inequality. The narrative has also taken hold that the last big trade agreement, NAFTA, hurt us. That remains an unexamined assumption and assertion, but it's a narrative.

So why do you see things so differently from your colleagues?

I represent a high-tech district in suburban Washington, D.C., that likes trade and benefits from trade. We have economic development offices in Bangalore, India, in Taiwan, in Israel. That tells you a lot about not only the perceptions but the investments we've made as a community in global trade.

Do you feel like the president has got your back, if you face a backlash against free trade from liberals?

He's reiterated that many times: "I will have your back. If anyone tries to give you a challenge in a primary, I will be behind you, you will have the full power of the White House behind you."

And the president is behind your current strategy to vote on Trade Promotion Authority and Trade Adjustment Assistance separately in Congress?

That's a strategy that came out of discussions with him, John Boehner, Mitch McConnell, the coalition of 28 House Democrats that support free trade, pro-trade Senate Democrats and Paul Ryan [Republican chair of the House Ways and Means Committee]. It was kind of an odd mixture of people who don't normally come together on anything. But we have a mutuality of interests.

Why do you trust House Speaker John Boehner and Senate Majority Leader McConnell to hold a vote on Trade Adjustment Assistance, which you know they don't like, once they've already gotten Congress to pass the Trade Promotion Authority bill?

Trust is a very fragile commodity in Washington. But in order to work, legislation requires a certain level of it. You've got to remember, in the legislative business, today's adversary is tomorrow's ally. That doesn't work without the ingredient of some trust—that you're not going to lie to my face, that your word is your bond. Otherwise, this place works even less than it does right now.

This trade legislation has actually been an extraordinary display, turning all these narratives about Washington not working, in a sense, on their head.