Trade

Veteran trade warriors watch Warren take the spotlight

Sen. Elizabeth Warren has emerged as the most visible Democratic opponent to President Obama’s trade agenda.
 
That’s left Democrats with decades of experience fighting free trade deals both glad to have the liberal star’s outsized megaphone on their side — but also a bit jealous of the attention she’s getting.
 
In fact, lawmakers who call Warren (D-Mass.) an incredible asset can’t help but note that plenty of others — Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) and Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), to name just a couple — have been making the same arguments for a lot longer.
 
“She’s saying the same thing that DeLauro is saying. She’s saying the same thing that Sherrod is saying. She’s saying the same thing the Progressive Caucus and unions are saying,” said Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.). “But she seems to have a financial and economic credibility to what she says. That sometimes isn’t given to the other people.”
 
Rather than blame Warren, lawmakers insist that the press that obsesses over her, and the president who’s singled her out for criticism, have made her the face of their cause.
 
As the White House made the case for Congress to pass fast-track legislation the president says is critical to finalizing a 12-nation trade pact known as the Trans Pacific Partnership, Obama set off a round of sparring, calling Warren “absolutely wrong” on trade, and later describing her as “just another politician.”
 
In response, Warren pushed the president to make public the text of negotiations, argued he was overstating the labor protections in the pending deal, and warned the terms could undermine the Dodd-Frank financial reform law.
 
The spat drove headlines on the trade fight, but Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D-Texas) said that the concentration on “Warren v. Obama” masked some of the real problems that opponents have with the trade deal.
 
“He referenced specifically her, I guess, as the most visible person,” Doggett said. “She’s hardly the only person who’s been raising concerns about this.
 
“It’s unfortunate that so much of the focus of the press has been on whether there’s a personality conflict, rather than on the substance of the very complex issues she’s been raising,” he added.
 
Add to that the fact that Warren commands significant press attention with just about anything she does, and it’s a recipe for her to leapfrog to a leadership role on the trade fight, ahead of lawmakers that have been battling free trade deals since President Clinton pushed the North American Free Trade Agreement.
 
“Whatever. It’s the press,” said Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.). “I mean, I’ve been saying this stuff since NAFTA. It’s more than 20 years.”
 
While Democrats might not cop to any envy of Warren, aides on Capitol Hill say there’s no doubt it exists. For instance, veteran Democratic lawmakers who are no strangers to the trade wars are now getting asked about Warren’s ability to galvanize opposition, or her role in winning over converts on both sides of the Capitol.
 
One aide to a Democratic lawmaker who opposes fast track said Warren was clearly “a net positive” for the effort.
 
“But I have no doubt that some of our folks are wondering about all the attention she’s getting,” the aide said.
 
With an intensely loyal liberal following, Warren has been able to command the spotlight on basically any issue she focuses on. Her criticism of a derivatives provision tucked into a government funding bill at the end of 2014 nearly upended the measure, and her concerted efforts killed the White House’s attempt to tap the investment banker Antonio Weiss for a top Treasury Department spot.
 
While Warren has built her public reputation on criticizing Wall Street, her office is quick to note she does have a trade record of her own. A Warren aide noted she was one of just four ‘no’ votes against U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman when he was confirmed by the Senate in 2013, citing back then her concern with the lack of transparency TPP negotiations.
 
The aide added that senator has spent the last two years meeting privately with the administration and the USTR about her concerns, while making those concerns public via letters and op-eds.
 
Lawmakers are well aware of her clout, and say they are grateful she can garner attention to the concerns — lax labor and environmental protections, a generous arbitration system for corporations — that they see in the trade deal.
 
DeFazio said he would take any allies he could get in that fight — especially after Obama’s lobbying efforts took him to Nike in his home state.
 
“I don’t resent the fact that someone who shares my opinions is getting national coverage and challenging the president,” he said.
 
But others acknowledged that being overshadowed is never a lawmaker’s deliberate plan.
 
“Everybody in Congress wants to be noticed,” said Rep. Jim McDermott (D-Wash.). “It’s hard.”
 
That’s especially true, a bemused McDermott said, about issues like trade that have popped up repeatedly in recent decades.
 
“The nature of all of us is presenting an image of knowing what the hell is going on,” he added. “‘I said it first! I was saying it two years ago!’ Nobody heard you.”
 
For now, any lawmakers that may believe they have a longer record on the topic are showing few signs of sour grapes. Rather, they argue that keeping the opposition united, Warren at the head or no, is the overarching goal.
 
“I’m sure there’s some sense that we’ve been toiling in the vineyard a lot longer. But right now holding a coalition of opposition together is probably more important than credit,” said Grijalva. “There’s trickle down attention to the points that we’ve made.”
 
With the Senate passing the trade package Friday, the fight now turns to the House, which has long been seen as a more difficult place to pass the legislation.
 
“The White House still has an uphill climb,” said Bill Samuel of the AFL-CIO. “We feel pretty optimistic.”

Tags Elizabeth Warren Jim McDermott Michael Froman Sherrod Brown
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