Labor warns Obama on trade policy

Labor unions and environmental groups warned President Obama Wednesday that getting too cozy with congressional Republicans on trade issues could imperil other parts of his policy agenda.

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They urged caution for a president who has signaled a willingness to buck his own party in favor of working with Republicans who back his trade agenda, including authority to fast-track major international agreements.

“From our point of view, it’s inadvisable,” said Thea Lee, deputy chief of staff for the AFL-CIO.

With informal Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) talks taking place this week in Washington, the groups vowed to turn up the heat against trade promotion authority, which would allow Congress only an up or down vote on the massive 12-nation agreement, with no opportunity to offer amendments.

“Of all the things he can be doing in the end of his second term and for his legacy, he would be a lot better served by working with his allies in labor, the environment and consumer safety world, and try to help us figure out how we can do in a different direction,” Lee told reporters on Wednesday.

As recently as last week, Obama signaled in a talk to business leaders that he might be willing to go against dissenting Democrats and forge a partnership with congressional Republicans to help push through legacy-building trade agreements.

Growing discontent among the labor and green groups, congressional Democrats and some Republicans has created a backlash against the Obama administration’s push for lawmakers to grant the president trade promotion authority (TPA).

Although the president has repeatedly asked for TPA, there remain questions about whether he has the political muscle to convince skeptical Democrats to get it done.

A general lack of transparency over the deal’s components and some emerging details have created unlikely bedfellows on both sides of the issue.

“There’s a lot of frustration in Congress for many of the reasons on transparency and what we know about the agreement,” said Ilana Solomon, director of the Responsible Trade Program at the Sierra Club. “And there’s a very strong coalition of Democrats and a very strong number of Republicans that are frustrated by the president’s work on trade and are very reluctant to give fast-track authority to the president.”

The AFL-CIO has vigorously campaigned against fast-track authority and is expected to ramp up its efforts heading into 2015, when Republicans will control both chambers of Congress.

“The labor movement and its allies are planning a major campaign against fast-track, and we have a lot of action in the new year,” Lee said.

“We think this is an important issue, and we will work with our colleagues in the business community that have better relationships with Republicans in Congress than we do. But we think that we have a good shot at defeating or slowing it down.”

There’s no question that trade promotion authority has plenty of hurdles in its way.

John Arnett, government affairs counsel of the Copper & Brass Fabricators Council, said the chances for fast-track to pass will improve in the new Congress.

“But it will generate a great deal of opposition; [it’s] going to be a tough battle in 2015,” he said.

Critics also cite a lack of currency manipulation provisions, as well as issues with the labor and environment chapters of the proposed deal.

Dean Baker, co-director of the Center for Economic & Policy Research, said currency manipulation protections could be included in the deal if it were a priority for the Obama administration, stressing that the provisions have support from majorities in both chambers of Congress.

But with time ticking down, that means, Lee said, the opportunity to address their long-standing problems with the direction of the deal also decreases.

“There’s no indication that his trade deal is a departure from the failed model in the past,” Solomon said.