Politico: POLITICO Pro Left, right mobilize against Obama's trade push

Unabashed liberals Rosa DeLauro and Keith Ellison are finding themselves taking sides with tea party-backed Republicans Walter Jones and Duncan Hunter in the fight against a common enemy — the White House’s GOP-backed trade agenda.

[Reposted from Politico  |  Adam Behsudi  |  January 20, 2015]

The extreme political opposites are pushing back on trade just as President Barack Obama unleashes his Cabinet on Capitol Hill for an aggressive lobbying campaign to promote his plans. The White House’s goal: persuading the president’s own party to join with Republicans to give him a critical piece of legislation that would fast-track congressional approval of the largest free-trade agreements in history.

“I believe that there will be Republican votes against fast track for whatever reason,” DeLauro said. “They have the same issues in their district with regards to jobs that all of us do.”

Any way you slice it, defeating the fast-track legislation will be difficult for these strangest of bedfellows, forcing the extreme left and right to work in close quarters in a House dominated by the GOP, which has identified trade as one of the few areas where it can work cooperatively with Obama.

The legislation is considered critical for gaining congressional approval of a pair of blockbuster trade deals with 11 other Asia-Pacific countries and the 28-nation European Union, which combined account for about two-thirds of the world’s gross domestic product.

The bill would give the Obama administration wide latitude to negotiate the deals while limiting Congress to an up-or-down vote on the final agreements, without the possibility of adding an amendments during debate. That would give the other countries the confidence to ink the agreements without fear that their hard-won concessions will be undone by recalcitrant lawmakers.

The opposition’s challenge will be finding a way to muster the 218 votes needed to strike down the fast-track legislation, which Hill watchers say could be introduced in the next couple of weeks.

Tea party and other conservatives oppose the legislation because they say it would cede Congress’ constitutional authority over trade to a White House they don’t trust. Progressives, backed by labor and environmental groups, say the bill will only make it easier to strike new trade deals that would send U.S. jobs to countries with deficient labor and environment standards.

“For the past six years, the president has ignored Congress, repeatedly abused his executive authority and flaunted the law on Obamacare, amnesty for illegal aliens and many other things,” said Jones (R-N.C.). “Given his record, I am astonished that some of my colleagues are so eager to fork over even more of their constitutional authority to the president for him to abuse.”

Although a full-fledged unholy alliance between the left and right wings has yet to emerge over the measure, lawmakers and groups from both sides recently announced within days of each other that they’re ratcheting up the fight.

At the same time, Obama has sent forth key Cabinet members in an all-hands effort to rally support on the Hill — and especially from his own trade-skeptical party. A whip effort headed by Obama’s chief economic adviser, Jeff Zients, will most likely target the 100 or so Democrats who have voted favorably for trade bills in the past.

“Our strategy is very straightforward,” Labor Secretary Tom Perez said in an interview. “We’re talking to and listening and learning from everybody, and whether we will be able to persuade everybody obviously remains to be seen.”

“Many of the people who have expressed concerns are very good friends of mine, with whom we agree on the overwhelming percentage of issues that come before Congress,” Perez added. “We have very respectful relationships, very productive relationships, and that is why it is very possible to have these conversations even when there are serious and honest differences of opinion.”

Perez indicated that the White House’s strategy involves convincing members that Obama’s Asia-Pacific deal will be the greenest and most labor-friendly in U.S. history, with the potential for raising standards in the most downtrodden, smog-choked corners of Asia.

“If we don’t raise the bar, there is no nation in a position to do so, and the nation that will step in and set the standards is China,” Perez said of the message he is delivering to lawmakers. “China is not going to be raising the bar on wages. They’re not going to be raising the bar on environmental protections.”

But the administration’s push, as well as the Republican leadership’s support for the trade bill, has done little to deter opponents from concentrating their efforts in the lower chamber.

Past fights against fast-track legislation have always focused on the House, where more members from both parties are prone to support populist arguments against the perceived ills of trade deals, labor sources said.

Opponents say a majority of Democrats can already be counted on to vote against the bill, and trade adversaries are prying at the cracks within the House GOP majority.

“We have a capacity to speak to one part of this Congress in a meaningful way; they [Democrats] have the capacity to speak to another part of this Congress in a meaningful way,” Rick Manning, executive director of Americans for Limited Government, said at a Jan. 13 press conference announcing that his group was organizing conservatives against the legislation. “Hopefully together we can create good policy and stop TPA.”

Free trade’s foes argue that special interests and ideological differences could drive Republican members away from their party’s pro-trade stance. Some Republicans may believe sectors in their districts, such as heavy manufacturing or catfish farming, are threatened by the massive Trans-Pacific Partnership deal, which stretches from Chile to Japan. Others may be loath to give Obama greater authority over the way trade agreements are approved.

Rep. Walter Jones (R-N.C.) says the president has "repeatedly abused his executive authority." | AP Photo

In the Senate, passage of the trade bill is more certain, with the chamber’s largely pro-trade bloc of 54 Republicans needing only six Democrats to end a potential filibuster.

“It’s going to come down to whether or not the House rank-and-file Republicans are willing to do a party-line vote,” said Lori Wallach, director of Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch, a liberal group at the forefront of the fight against the fast-track legislation.

Tea party interests, for their part, argue that granting trade promotion authority to the president would only add to the string of bad deals negotiated by the executive branch.

“I don’t like the idea of ceding American jobs, and there are deep trust issues with the administration when it comes to doing anything behind the curtain,” said Hunter, a longtime advocate of buying American products to protect manufacturing jobs. “They’re legitimate concerns and sure to factor into any decision making.”

But the California Republican said he considers trade-related issues on a case-by-case basis, indicating that he hasn’t fully committed either way on the fast-track legislation.

Still, most of the rhetoric against Obama’s trade agenda has come largely from the most liberal members of the Democratic Caucus.

On Jan. 8, DeLauro (D-Conn.) and Ellison (D-Minn.) led a group of liberal Democrats in launching what they claim is the largest coalition of labor, environmental and other left-leaning groups ever to mobilize against a trade bill. Stopping the fast-track measure would derail the TPP agreement, which they say would cause jobs to hemorrhage and the trade deficit to balloon as manufacturers shift to cheaper production in developing nations, they say.

“There is no way in the world I can support fast track abdicating my responsibility, my authority as a member of Congress without being very clear on every single comma in the Trans-Pacific Partnership,” Ellison, who co-chairs the Congressional Progressive Caucus, said at the rally.

Meanwhile, 19 conservative Republicans warned their party leadership in a letter last month against trying to pass the legislation in the lame-duck session, saying at least 60 lawmakers wouldn’t be returning to Congress and therefore wouldn’t be accountable to the public for their votes. The group, which now numbers 16 following three retirements at the end of the last Congress, signaled their permanent ideological opposition to the bill and “habitual abuses of power of this President.”

“It is evident from the outcome of this month’s elections that any efforts to grant TPA to the President during a Lame Duck session would be harmful to the trust that the American people just put in us at the ballot box,” the letter said.

Despite their vocal opposition, it’s unclear whether the liberals and tea party conservatives will be able to squeak by with a defeat of the legislation.

“When you take an honest, sober look at the numbers, there really isn’t a credible way to argue that TPA opponents will have much success in blocking this effort,” one U.S. official told POLITICO. “That said, trade supporters are taking nothing for granted.”

Influential conservative groups like the Club for Growth and Heritage Action back most of the White House’s trade plans, and some tea party darlings have already voiced support for the trade agenda.

“I am a full-throated advocate of free trade,” Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) told reporters this month. “Free trade benefits America, produces jobs, produces economic growth and it is good for our country.”

Trade proponents across the aisle say they’re are counting on support from 25 to 40 of the 188 House Democrats, mostly from the moderate, 46-member New Democrat Coalition.

Said one Democratic aide: “The important thing is, this is a fringe group of legislators coming out and saying this right now. The bigger question is, what is the impact this is all having?”

The answer so far seems to be not much. The same day that DeLauro and her 16 fellow Democrats announced their efforts to kill the trade legislation, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said her party’s stance on trade is not a foregone conclusion.

“I don’t know that most people in our caucus have made up their minds,” the California Democrat said when asked about the legislation at a press conference. “Many have, yeah, but what they have made up their minds to is that they want to see transparency. They want to see consultation. They want to see fairness. They want to see what this means to the American paycheck.”

House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) told New Democrats in a closed-door meeting earlier this month that Pelosi has occasionally backed trade, and that her support shouldn’t be out of the question this time around, a Democratic aide said.

To that end, the administration is giving members its best environmental and labor pitch, saying new standards under the deal will be fully enforceable — something that Pelosi has fought for in past agreements.

“TPP will be the most progressive trade agreement in history, breaking new ground on labor and environmental protections,” a USTR spokesman said. “We are going to be making that case to Congress and the American people.”

But DeLauro and other opponents are skeptical that any new-and-improved provisions would be thoroughly enforced.

“There was never enforcement in any of the rules of the trade bills,” said Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.), who’s among the group of progressives opposed to the legislation. “NAFTA. Look at what we were promised then and what we got.”

The AFL-CIO, too, has formally said it will fight the fast-track bill. The labor group has repeatedly criticized the U.S. government for dragging its feet on labor cases against Guatemala and Honduras, which are accused of falling short of their labor obligations under the Central American Free Trade Agreement.

Perez said investigating labor complaints faster is one of the issues being discussed in the Asia-Pacific trade deal, “because justice delayed can be justice denied.”

“So we’re working to develop new structures that are more streamlined to address complaints that retain the appropriate due-process protections but enable us to finish the investigation much more quickly,” he said.

On the Democratic side, trade opponents are looking to past history as their guide in garnering GOP opposition.

In 1998, 71 Republicans voted against fast track, DeLauro said at her anti-trade coalition’s launch.

“We have a number of people who have already emerged,” she said, adding: “They have the same issues in their districts with regards to jobs that all of us do.”

But DeLauro said she still hasn’t yet had any “direct conversations” across the aisle.

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