Democratic critics rebuff latest White House trade overture

Democratic critics rebuff latest White House trade overture
© Greg Nash

The Obama administration said Wednesday it would give Congress more access to the text of a massive Asia-Pacific trade pact, even as a group of House Democrats renewed vows to block the president’s agenda over “a lot of unanswered questions” about the deal.

U.S. Trade Representative Michael FromanMichael FromanUS will investigate aluminum imports as national security hazard Overnight Finance: WH floats Mexican import tax | Exporters move to back GOP tax proposal | Dems rip Trump adviser's Goldman Sachs payout Froman heads to Council on Foreign Relations MORE announced the changes in a meeting with House Democrats on Capitol Hill. He said the new policy makes the full negotiating text of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) available to members, allows them to bring a staffer to review it, and provides summaries by chapter, an administration official told The Hill.

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“The Obama administration is committed to maximizing the transparency of U.S. trade negotiations consistent with negotiating the best possible agreement for the American people,” Froman said.

“Today, working directly with Congress we have taken unprecedented additional measures to help members fully understand the benefits we are working to bring home for American workers, businesses, farmers and ranchers,” he said.

The announcement comes at a crucial stage. Many House Democrats are at odds with the White House over President Obama’s trade agenda and in particular his bid for expanded “fast-track” powers to negotiate trade deals.

Opponents of the proposal didn’t waver following the meeting with Froman.

“I believe we will defeat fast-track … the votes are not there for fast-track,” Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) said.

Obama administration officials are putting on a full-court press trying to convince lawmakers to support legislation handing Obama fast-track power, also known as trade promotion authority (TPA).  The measure would allow the trade deals to go through Congress without amendment.

Wednesday’s announcement was meant to assuage lawmakers who have complained that they’ve been left in the dark about what’s in the proposed agreement.

The full text of the TPP was previously available to all lawmakers to review upon request. Now, they will be able to review the text at their convenience, without the presence of administration officials, in the congressional security office.

In addition, the USTR’s office will provide classified easy-to-read summaries to accompany the legal text aimed at helping lawmakers navigate the current version of the agreement.

The White House has been working with congressional leaders — including members of the Senate Finance and House Ways and Means committees, which handle trade — to figure out the best way to provide more access to the documents.

Ways and Means Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) has said that a change in the transparency rules was slated to land in a trade promotion authority bill that is still under construction.

The changes also allow lawmakers to bring a member of their own staff, with appropriate security clearance, to review the text, instead of only a professional committee staffer.

Complaints about the access to the text and details about the TPP’s negotiations have rippled through both parties across Capitol Hill.

The loudest protests have come from liberal House Democrats who said the rules to view the text were too stringent.

They have argued that the White House didn’t want them to know the TPP details because they say any deal is likely to be bad for U.S. workers and their wages.

Froman has told lawmakers in several Capitol Hill hearings that he was willing to review and make changes to the transparency rules so that lawmakers felt comfortable with the details of the TPP talks, which are still in flux.

The text is considered classified because they are working documents of sensitive international negotiations that provide the 11 other nations involved an expectation of confidentiality.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said on Tuesday that the impatience of some Democrats to have access to the trade deal text is “legitimate.” 

But she also brushed aside other Democratic concerns about classified meetings saying “we can get over that” and that it is a matter of process.

Critics disagreed, arguing the administration’s latest overture was insufficient.

“It’s too little, too late,” Rep. Alan Grayson (D-Fla.) said after the meeting.

“They’ve deliberately obstructed,” Grayson said. “They’ve been negotiating this thing for five years, and now at the last minute they want to give us that in order to try and placate some of the criticism.”