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House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi confronting competing pressures, balancing act on trade

WASHINGTON – As House Speaker, Nancy Pelosi delivered the signature achievement of President Barack Obama’s first term: his health care bill. Now Obama’s top second-term goal, a major trade deal involving the U.S. and 11 other Pacific Rim nations, hangs in the balance in Congress and Pelosi is again on the spot.

But this time, the Democrat, now minority leader, finds herself out of step with her party’s president — caught between his ambitions and the overwhelming opposition of her Democratic caucus to a free-trade deal many fear could harm American workers.

And it remains to be seen whether the 75-year-old Pelosi, in her 15th term and perhaps approaching the end of her congressional career, will help Obama get his trade bill over the finish line — or side with the labour unions and liberals who oppose the legislation, even though its failure would constitute a humiliating defeat for Obama.

“I really want a path to ‘yes,’ desperately,” Pelosi told The Associated Press in an interview in her office. “I would hope that we could come together on something that we’re in agreement on, but this is a vote that people will very much be voting their districts and there’s a lot of, shall we say, opinion on this in people’s districts.”

Democratic lawmakers point out that there’s little political upside for Democrats to grant Obama “fast track” authority to negotiate trade deals that Congress can approve or reject but not amend. The bill, which would pave the way for a landmark Trans Pacific Partnership, is fiercely opposed by core Democratic constituencies, and strongly backed by business groups that overwhelmingly support Republicans and would be unlikely to reward a Democrat for a trade vote.

Yet despite their historic majority in the House, Republicans don’t expect to be able to muster the votes necessary to pass fast-track next month after expected Senate approval this week. They are counting on Democrats to supply some two dozen votes; as of now, most involved don’t count more than 17 or so Democratic votes.

Whether Pelosi would weigh in to help move an additional half-dozen or more Democratic votes is not yet clear — nor is whether she herself will vote yes in the end, though many fellow lawmakers would be surprised if she did. She is trying to maintain her leverage, insisting that as the majority party, Republicans have the responsibility to supply the votes.

“It is something that corporate America wants very much, they have their friends on the Republican side. They should be able to produce this victory,” Pelosi said. Of House Speaker John Boehner she said: “He’s Speaker. … It’s up to him to produce the votes.”

But passing the trade bill is also a top priority for Obama, who after years of hands-off relations with Congress has launched an all-out lobbying campaign for the legislation, offering House Democrats everything from political cover to rides on Air Force One.

He’s leaning heavily on Pelosi, pulling her into the Oval Office for lobbying last month when she was at the White House to celebrate passage of Medicare legislation; including her on the guest list about a week later for a state dinner for the prime minister of Japan; and hosting her for a one-on-one lunch.

For now, Pelosi’s declaring herself open to all sides, hoping to get to yes but also voicing the concerns of her House Democrats on worker and environmental protections, and demanding repeat briefings from administration officials who might otherwise be disregarding the concerns of the House minority. She’s called for a shorter deal than the six years contemplated by the fast-track agreement, but has kept the White House apprised of her moves.

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Associated Press writer Jim Kuhnhenn contributed to this report.