Rep. Levin known as trade critic, but his record on the issue is more complicated

Rep. Sandy Levin is known as a trade critic, but his record on the issue is more complicated.

Levin (D-Mich.), who was named interim chairman of the Ways and Means Committee after Rep. Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.) stepped down under an ethics investigation, has been a leader in the Democratic Caucus on trade for years.

ADVERTISEMENT
He’s expressed skepticism of pending agreements with Colombia, Panama and South Korea that were negotiated by the Bush administration, leading some to think those deals are unlikely to be dislodged.

But in 2000, Levin voted for granting China more favorable trade terms, which ushered that country into the global trading system and the World Trade Organization.

Levin initially opposed that legislation, but later lobbied members for support after winning concessions from the Clinton administration.

More recently, Levin helped negotiate changes to a trade deal with Peru that allowed it to win congressional approval in 2007.

Some business lobbyists who’ve been hoping for action on the Bush administration’s leftover trade agenda suggest things aren’t likely to worsen for them with Levin at the helm of the committee instead of Rangel.

Others are hopeful that Levin could deliver for them.

Cal Cohen, president of the Emergency Committee for American Trade, sees Levin as someone who could find middle ground. “Levin had issues he wanted to address on China’s accession to the WTO, and it went forward,” he notes.

Others on K Street still feel burned by the decision Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) took to change House rules to prevent the Colombia deal from coming up under the “fast-track” law. That law was supposed to ensure consideration of the agreement under special rules. Both Rangel and Levin supported Pelosi’s move.

Still, Levin’s and Pelosi’s records on trade are hardly identical.

Pelosi voted against China’s entry to the WTO, and the two also split on the other huge trade vote of the last two decades, the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) with Canada and Mexico in 1993. Pelosi voted for NAFTA, while Levin voted against it.

Rangel is thought to be more business friendly than Levin, a point Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) made to The Hill this week. He said Levin is “not nearly as pro-business as Charlie was.”

But Rangel and Levin voted identically on NAFTA and China. Rangel also leaned on Levin on trade policy in recent years, and gave Levin a full-throated blessing to take over the committee in his absence.

Levin is dealing with a divided caucus on trade, which makes moving anything through Congress difficult.

More than half of the House Democratic Caucus has signed legislation sponsored by Rep. Mike Michaud (D-Maine) that would force the administration to renegotiate the NAFTA and other existing trade deals.

At least one sponsor of the Michaud bill though Levin’s elevated position was good for that bill.

“I think that gives us a real fighting shot not only to get the bill on the floor, but to get it passed,” said Rep. Phil Hare (D-Ill.) of Levin’s new chairmanship.

But the Michaud bill is unpopular with the Ways and Means panel. Only one committee member is a co-sponsor.

President Barack Obama in his State of the Union address said he wanted to double U.S. exports over the next decade, and business groups have stressed that passage of the trade deals would be a step in that direction.

But the endless healthcare debate has kept trade on the back burner, as the administration didn’t need to pick more internal fights with Congress over trade while it sought to unite it on healthcare.

With healthcare finally headed toward the home stretch, it’s possible that at least one of the deals could be considered this year. Speculation has centered on the Panama deal, which is the least controversial.

Unions have drawn a sharp line on the deal with Colombia, which they argue has not done enough to crack down on violence against labor organizers.

The South Korea deal, however, could be the toughest for Levin. It would by far have the greatest economic impact on the U.S., but could open the U.S. market further to Korean trucks by eliminating a tariff.

The United Auto Workers opposes the deal, as does the Ford Motor Co., the only Big Three automaker that didn’t get a bailout from taxpayers.

-- Jay Heflin and Walter Alarkon contributed to this story