The clash over President Obama’s trade agenda engulfed Washington on Wednesday as liberal critics delayed a Senate vote, House Democratic leaders lined up in opposition and GOP supporters predicted success despite the growing commotion.
The fight over trade promotion authority (TPA), or fast-track, legislation is crucial to Obama’s efforts to enact sweeping new trade deals — one with Europe and the other a 12-nation behemoth with countries from Asia to Latin America — that rank among the top policy priorities of his second term.
The debate has spun Washington’s traditional politics on its head, with Obama and Republican leaders uniting behind the fast-track bill in the face of staunch disapproval from liberal Democrats who typically constitute the president’s base.
That opposition was out in force Wednesday.
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), a liberal icon who’s eyeing a White House bid, forced the Senate Finance Committee to delay its scheduled markup of the fast-track bill for more than five hours to highlight his concerns.
“Not only is there massive opposition to this TPP [Trans-Pacific Partnership] agreement, but there is a lot of concern that the American people have not been involved in the process and there’s not a lot of transparency,” Sanders said.
The Finance panel reconvened Wednesday afternoon and was expected to pass the fast-track bill with broad bipartisan support in the evening.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), another liberal favorite, piled on, lashing out at Obama’s recent remarks that she’s wrong to criticize the emerging trade deals.
“The administration says I’m wrong — that there’s nothing to worry about,” Warren, who’s being pushed by the left to jump into the 2016 presidential contest, wrote in a blog post.
“They say the deal is nearly done, and they are making a lot of promises about how the deal will affect workers, the environment, and human rights. Promises — but people like you can’t see the actual deal.”
Sponsored by Sens. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), and Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), the bill would grant Congress a vote on trade pacts negotiated by the administration, but lawmakers would not have the option to amend those deals.
Obama, GOP leaders and other supporters argue that the fast-track authority is vital for sealing trade deals. Liberal Democrats and other critics maintain that the fast-track bill sets the stage for a TPP agreement lacking firm protections for the environment and workers — domestic and foreign alike.
“The negotiating objectives within that TPA bill are almost identical to those of the dead-on-arrival TPA bill that was introduced a year ago and are so broad that they don’t begin to address the outstanding issues within the TPP negotiations,” Rep. Sandy Levin (D-Mich.), ranking member of the Ways and Means Committee, said Wednesday during a hearing on trade promotion authority.
Other Democratic leaders — including Reps. Xavier Becerra (Calif.), chairman of the Democratic Caucus, and Joseph Crowley (N.Y.), vice chairman of the caucus — are also lining up against the bill.
And House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who had declined to weigh in since the bill was unveiled last week, announced Wednesday that she’s supporting a TPA alternative Levin plans to offer Thursday during a markup in the Ways and Means Committee.
That alternative “recognizes that TPP has the potential to raise standards and open new markets for U.S. businesses, workers and farmers, and makes suggestions on how to do so,” Pelosi said.
Neither she nor House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) have weighed in directly on the original bill. But they find themselves in a difficult spot, caught between the president they want to support and an overwhelming number of their left-leaning colleagues attacking the bill.
Hillary Clinton, the Democratic front-runner for the White House next year, is in a similar spot and has not taken a clear position on the upcoming vote.
GOP leaders, meanwhile, are pushing hard to approve the fast-track bill.
“Trade is good for America. It helps strengthen our economy, create more American jobs,” Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) said Wednesday. “We need to get this passed.”
Rep. Pete Sessions (R-Texas), chairman of the Rules Committee, predicted Republicans will succeed.
“We are going to pass this piece of legislation,” he told reporters.
Still, GOP leaders are struggling to rally enough votes, largely because many conservatives don’t want to grant new authority to a president whom they’ve accused for years of abusing his executive power.
The Republican opposition means GOP leaders likely will need Democratic support to pass the bill in the lower chamber.
It remains unclear, however, how many Republicans might defect, leaving open the second question of how many Democratic votes House GOP leaders might need to pass the bill.
Eleven members of the New Democrat Coalition issued a statement suggesting they’ll back the legislation, and Democratic lawmakers and aides are predicting the range of Democratic supporters will eventually stretch anywhere from 15 to 30.
Hoyer said Wednesday that there have been no discussions with GOP leaders about whipping the vote.
“Nor are we counting at this point in time,” Hoyer said. “That may occur in the future.”
For the Democratic critics, their concern stems largely from the 1993 debate over the North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA, on which many lawmakers felt misled at the expense of U.S. jobs.
“NAFTA created a lot of jobs, but it eliminated a lot of jobs,” Rep. James Clyburn (S.C.), the third-ranking House Democrat, said Wednesday, suggesting he’s also leaning against the fast-track bill.
White House spokesman Eric Schultz on Wednesday acknowledged the failed promises of past trade deals, but he maintained that the current Democratic concerns are unfounded.
“[Obama] will be the first one to acknowledge that past trade agreements have not lived up to the hype; that includes agreements like NAFTA,” Schultz told reporters on Air Force One en route to Miami. “But that is the reason the president has been dogged in his determination to make sure that any deal that is reached includes the strongest not only environmental protections, but labor protections and human rights protections we’ve ever seen.”