House Democrats wary of trade pact

House Democrats are worried that the upcoming free-trade agreement with Andean countries Colombia, Peru and Ecuador will contain many of the same provisions that they found objectionable in the Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA), which passed the House July 28 after a bitterly partisan battle.

Democratic Reps. Jan Schakowsky (Ill.), Raul Grijalva (Ariz.), Sherrod Brown (Ohio) and James McGovern (Mass.) have drafted a letter to United States Trade Representative Rob Portman criticizing the U.S. stance on provisions relating to agriculture, intellectual property and labor. 

They plan to begin circulating the letter in the coming days to collect more signatures from members. All four sided with the majority of Democrats in voting against CAFTA.

Many believe that the Andean agreement, which is still being negotiated, could prompt the same partisan bloodbath that characterized the CAFTA vote, in which the administration eventually prevailed by two votes after the floor vote was kept open for an hour. 

Rep. Ben Cardin (Md.), ranking Democrat on the Trade Subcommittee of the Ways and Means Committee, said it was too soon to tell whether the Andean agreement would shape up as another tough vote like CAFTA.

“I can’t tell you [a partisan battle] won’t happen with any other agreement. You just do what you can and see where you are at the end of the day,” he said.

Cardin was confident, though, that smaller bilateral trade pacts, such as the upcoming one with Bahrain, would gain more Democratic support than CAFTA.

Rep. Sander Levin (Mich.), another high-ranking Democrat on the Ways and Means Committee, said he was discouraged by the administration’s failure to back tougher labor standards in the Andean pact after Peruvian President Alejandro Toledo voiced his support for them.

“The Peruvian president said right off the bat that it was important for workers to have their rights … It was clear as day [to the administration]. There’s this basic issue that has to be worked out and yet they haven’t,” said Levin, who holds substantial sway in the Democratic caucus on trade issues.