The Hill: Left threatens to oust key Dem over trade

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The linchpin of President Obama’s trade agenda in the Senate is coming under intense pressure from the left to go against the White House.

[Reposted from The Hill  | Vicki Needham  |  March 26, 2015]

Liberal groups are threatening to back a primary challenge to Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), a key member of the Senate Finance Committee, in 2016 if he helps Obama secure a new trade pact that would stretch from the Asia-Pacific to Latin America.

Activists have protested for months at Wyden’s home in Portland and his offices in Oregon and Washington, D.C., demanding that the senator oppose the “fast track” authority that the White House says is essential for a deal.

The group Fight for the Future has even followed Wyden around town-hall meetings in Oregon with a 30-foot blimp that urges him to oppose the trade push.

“The question right now is: Will Sen. Wyden stand with the vast majority of Oregonians who oppose fast-track authority and the job-killing TPP, or will he give Republicans the fig leaf they need to label these disastrous policies bipartisan?” said Jim Dean, chairman of Oregon Democracy for America.

The Oregon chapter of MoveOn.org on Wednesday released a poll that found more than 79 percent of its members would back a primary challenge to Wyden if he supports the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which it calls a “dangerous trade agreement.”

Separately, Oregon Democracy for America said its survey of the state found 93 percent of respondents would support a challenge to Wyden if he opts to work with Republicans on a fast-track bill.

“Oregonians don’t want another secretive, NAFTA-style trade agreement, as our Pulse Poll results make clear,” Dean said, referencing the North American Free Trade Agreement signed in the early ’90s.

Labor unions are also turning up the heat. On Wednesday, the AFL-CIO unveiled a new ad campaign in Oregon opposing fast-track legislation, even as the labor federation’s chief, Richard Trumka, paid a visit to House Democrats.

As ranking Democrat on the Finance Committee, Wyden’s stance on Obama’s trade agenda is pivotal.

In order to move a fast-track bill through the Senate, Republicans will likely need the help of Wyden to secure Democratic support and overcome a filibuster.

One Republican member of Congress said Wyden is “under a lot of pressure” on the trade issue, noting that the unions are “starting to lean in.”

While Wyden has consistently supported trade deals for his export-focused state in the past, he has been slow to embrace the new Republican proposals for fast-track authority.

An aide to the ranking member told The Hill he is fighting to update U.S. trade policy “to create unprecedented transparency, enforcement of the rules and congressional oversight throughout the entire trade process.” 

“He supports trade that fully reflects the values we hold dear in Oregon and in our country — protecting the environment, human rights, labor and free speech online.” 

The aide said that Wyden’s work on trade has been “driven by the knowledge that middle-class and working families must be confident that the U.S. is fixing a trade system that has too often failed previously to work for them.”

Wyden and Finance Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) haven’t reached an agreement yet on legislation that would let the TPP move through Congress in an up-or-down vote. 

Hatch said he has sent the Democrat a new legislative proposal, and wants to introduce something after lawmakers return in April from a two-week recess.

That has trade opponents ratcheting up the volume against Wyden, whose reelection in deep-blue Oregon would be nearly assured if he were to win the Democratic nomination.

Oregon’s Working Families Party, which usually backs Democrats, said it is sending out a mailer calling on voters to put more pressure on Wyden to back a strong trade agenda. The party has said it would oppose Wyden in a general election if he helped push through the trade deal. 

Last month, Oregon Democracy for America suggested that Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), who opposes Obama’s trade agenda, could be a candidate for Senate. DeFazio has denied any interest in running.

Wyden’s reelection campaign appears to be on guard against the liberal uprising.

Fight for the Future had planned to disrupt a Wyden fundraiser in Washington on Tuesday night, but said his campaign switched venues at the last minute to thwart their efforts.

“He knows that supporting fast-track authority for secretive trade deals like the Trans-Pacific Partnership is wrong,” said Evan Greer, campaign director of Fight for the Future. “He knows it goes against his own values and against the wishes of his voters.”

Whether Wyden’s stance on trade will hurt his reelection chances remains to be seen.

He easily dispatched all primary challengers in 2010 with 89 percent of the vote, and won the general election with a comfortable 57.2 percent. 

The Obama administration is lending Wyden a hand, recently touting that trade exports from Oregon reached a record high of $20.9 billion in 2014.

In February, Obama took time to praise Wyden in an interview with a Portland television station, saying his efforts had led to stronger labor and environmental protections in the Asia-Pacific deal.

“We have to get this bill done,” Obama said. “It’s going to be important for Oregon.”

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