New trade fight brews for Obama, Dems

New trade fight brews for Obama, Dems

A new trade fight is brewing between the Obama administration and Democrats in Congress.

Sen. Bob MenendezRobert (Bob) MenendezSenate to vote on blocking Trump's Saudi arms deal as soon as this week There is a severe physician shortage and it will only worsen Democrats ask Fed to probe Trump's Deutsche Bank ties MORE (N.J.) and other Democrats opposed to President Obama’s trade agenda are worried the State Department will upgrade Malaysia’s ranking in a human trafficking report to be released this week to ensure the country can be included in the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal.

The “legitimacy and moral authority on the issue of human trafficking is being undermined in an effort to smooth the path for the TPP,” declared Rep. Rosa DeLauro (Conn.), one of the liberal Democrats who fiercely battled the White House push for fast-track, or trade promotion, authority.

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Under language in the fast-track law Obama signed last month, any country that is a Tier-3 trafficking country, such as Malaysia, cannot be a part of a trade deal subject to fast-track rules.

Those rules make it easier to move a trade deal through Congress by preventing lawmakers from amending or filibustering it. The White House worked furiously this year to win fast-track’s approval, chiefly to move the TPP forward.

Malaysia is an important economy to include in the TPP, and backers of the deal badly want it to make the cut.

But Menendez and other critics are calling on Congress and the State Department’s inspector general to investigate any move that promotes Malaysia from the lowest level in the U.S. government’s annual Trafficking in Persons Report. 

He said promoting Malaysia would be “a cynical maneuver to get around the clear intent of Congress.”

“They put extra time on the clock for Malaysia to put some promises on paper — we don’t know for sure what they plan to count as progress — instead of taking the time for Malaysia to demonstrate some real action,” Menendez told reporters. 

Any undermining of the report is an “incredibly dangerous proposition as it relates to our ability to promote our
efforts globally against human trafficking,” he added.

The State Department says the TPP debate won’t affect Malaysia’s grade in the trafficking report.

“What I can tell you is that the analysis that the report represents is based on a very pragmatic set of assessments in each case, and it’s something we take very, very seriously,” State Department spokesman John Kirby said.

While Menendez opposed fast-track, he’s received some support on the trafficking issue from Sen. Ron WydenRonald (Ron) Lee WydenOvernight Defense: House passes T spending package with defense funds | Senate set to vote on blocking Saudi arms sales | UN nominee defends climate change record Grassley announces opposition to key Trump proposal to lower drug prices Exclusive: Trump administration delayed releasing documents related to Yellowstone superintendent's firing MORE (Ore.), the top Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee, who spearheaded fast-track’s approval in the Senate.

A Wyden aide said the senator is concerned that the State Department may not be following past practices for evaluating Malaysia.

If Malaysia does receive a better grade, Menendez said he would use all options, including calling on Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob CorkerRobert (Bob) Phillips CorkerPress: How 'Nervous Nancy' trumped Trump Amash gets standing ovation at first town hall after calling for Trump's impeachment Jeff Daniels blasts 'cowardice' of Senate Republicans against Trump MORE (R-Tenn.) to look into the decision.

Lawmakers have agreed to compromise language included in a customs bill that would make it easier for Congress to fast-track the TPP with countries in a lower rung if they can show they are working to combat human trafficking.

But Menendez said if he’s not satisfied, he’ll press lawmakers who are conferees on the customs bill to keep the tougher language.

John Sifton, the Asia advocacy director for Human Rights Watch, said the bottom line with Malaysia is that any promotion would be “extraordinarily unwarranted” and that political interference within the Obama administration can be presumed if it does happen. 

“Nobody at the State Department could look at me with a straight face and lay out the steps Malaysia has taken to warrant an upgrade to Tier 2 on the watch list,” he said. 

“Malaysia has done very, very little to combat this scourge. That’s why they were placed on Tier 3. They’ve done very little since being placed on Tier 3 to warrant an upgrade,” he said. 

The White House has taken high-level steps to ensure Malaysia remains in the negotiations, adding the country to the TPP in 2010 after years of failed bilateral negotiations. 

U.S. Trade Representative Michael FromanMichael B.G. FromanDemocrats give Trump trade chief high marks US trade rep spent nearly M to furnish offices: report Overnight Finance: Trump hits China on currency manipulation, countering Treasury | Trump taps two for Fed board | Tax deadline revives fight over GOP overhaul | Justices set to hear online sales tax case MORE traveled to Malaysia in May, and Obama played golf in Hawaii last December with Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak. Obama last visited Malaysia in April 2014.

Other Democrats opposed to the TPP have joined Menendez’s criticism.

Rep. Sandy Levin (Mich.), the top Democrat on the House Ways and Means Committee, said that consideration of Malaysia’s record on human trafficking should “reflect the realities on the ground and not a glossing over of those realities to assist Malaysia’s participation in TPP.”

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said his labor coalition is “outraged” by the decision.

“If Malaysia is rewarded with greater market access under the Trans-Pacific Partnership without having to first undertake fundamental reforms, there will be little incentive for Malaysia to end this brutality,” he said in a statement. 

Melysa Sperber, director of the Alliance to End Slavery and Trafficking, said any decision to upgrade Malaysia’s standing “is purely political and incredibly detrimental to combating human trafficking in that country.”

The TPP is being negotiated between the U.S. and 11 other countries: Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore and Vietnam.