By Vicki Needham and Mike Lillis - 01/22/15 06:00 AM EST
A trade war is erupting between Democrats and the Obama administration over efforts to pass “fast-track” legislation that would smooth the way for two major trade deals.
Dozens of House Democrats are expressing deep reservations about the White House’s trade agenda, putting themselves on a collision course with President Obama over concerns that the deals will benefit big business at the expense of U.S. workers.
But while Democrats say they backed most of the president’s vision on other issues, some called his trade policies “dangerous.”
Reps. Rosa DeLauro (Conn.) and Louise Slaughter (N.Y.) have been two of the loudest voices in the Democratic chorus against trade promotion authority (TPA) and say they are optimistic they can block the trade agenda.
“These trade deals make it much easier for corporations to send American jobs overseas,” DeLauro said Wednesday in what has become a weekly occurrence of press conferences on the issue.
DeLauro and other critics say the fast-track authority doesn’t allow proper public or congressional scrutiny of the agreements and fails to give Congress the ability to debate or amend the trade text.
“I believe we have the votes, and I think we’re going to win motion in denying fast-track,” DeLauro said.
They also say they have been left out of the trade-shaping process and are concerned that the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) will cause the loss of jobs and wages, something they say has also occurred after the passage of other trade deals.
Blocking fast-track authority could essentially kill any trade deals, since it would be much more difficult for the Obama administration to complete deals without that lever. Trading partners would be much less willing to negotiate if they believe Congress could then change the agreements and ask them to make further concessions.
Democrats rallying against it believe the defeat would force the administration to re-evaluate its stance, a House Democratic aide said.
“We can’t swallow another hopeful notion about trade,” said Slaughter. “We’re going to fight this tooth and nail, and I believe we’re going to win.”
U.S. Trade Representative Michael FromanMichael FromanOvernight Finance: GOP faces dilemma on spending bills | CEOs push Congress on tax rules | Trump talks energy Obama administration strikes deal on TPP data storage White House developing legislative strategy to pass Pacific trade deal MORE said Wednesday that the agreements will put the U.S. in a strong position to drive global trade in favor of its workers.
“TPA puts Congress in the driver’s seat to define U.S. negotiating objectives and priorities for trade agreements,” Froman said at the U.S. Conference of Mayors.
In fact, he described fast-track authority as Congress’s best tool to ensure that lawmakers and the public have ample time to give trade agreements the public scrutiny and debate they deserve.
Yet the White House acknowledged Obama’s plea in the State of the Union received a mixed response from both parties.
“There’s going to be some work to be done on both sides to persuade Democrats and Republicans that this is a good idea,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Wednesday.
Speaker John BoehnerJohn BoehnerHouse GOP faces dilemma on spending bills Overnight Finance: Puerto Rico bill clears panel | IRS chief vows to finish term | Bill would require nominees to release tax returns Overnight Defense: Pentagon chief fears sequestration's return MORE (R-Ohio) said earlier this month that the legislation will need at least 50 Democratic votes since there will be some GOP opposition.
The White House is lobbying about 80 potentially trade-friendly Democrats. But critics say any bill would be lucky to get the backing of 20.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) said she wants to work with the White House to win an agreement that Democrats can support but has yet to put her weight behind the president’s effort.
Rep. Xavier BecerraXavier BecerraWasserman Schultz fights to keep her job Minority lawmakers bash Trump over housing crisis Pelosi, Dems rush to defense of Wasserman Schultz MORE (Calif.), chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, said the trick will be threading that needle between business interests and workers.
“Too often, what we see is that trade deals get reached and signed but, those trading partners never live up to enforcing their end of the bargain,” he said Wednesday. “The last thing we want to do is do anything that makes it more difficult for the [working class].”
Rep. Joseph Crowley (N.Y.), the vice chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, has supported some trade deals but was quick to acknowledge the divisions.
“There’s a great deal of skepticism within our caucus because of a lack of enforcement,” he said.
What’s new, Crowley said, is the number of conservative Republicans who are also pushing back — a dynamic that he said gives Democrats leverage in the debate.
“More and more of their members from the right-wing Tea Party … don’t believe that the trade agenda is working for their constituents,” Crowley said.
“That puts pressure on Republicans, if again, they want to pass a bill, they need to start talking to Democrats as to what we would like to see in a TPA,” he said.
Fast-track authority expired during President George W. Bush’s tenure, and Obama would be the first president in decades to be denied it.
“It’s going to create some very interesting fault lines here in the Congress,” said Rep. Gerry ConnollyGerry ConnollyIRS hearing: Five things to watch DC Metro fires 20 managers in overhaul effort Oversight panel sees some improvement in feds' IT MORE (D-Va.), who supports it.
“But giving him the flexibility to negotiate with [fast-track authority] is something every president’s had for the last 40-plus years, and I think it would be a terrible blow for Democrats to be the instrument of denying this president that authority,” he said.