Obama’s free trade push runs into more trouble

AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite

AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite

Progressives and liberal lawmakers who are working hard to block the massive free trade deal being negotiated by the Obama administration have just gotten a big boost from someone they’d been aggressively courting: Nancy Pelosi.

In an event with labor officials on Capitol Hill today, Pelosi delivered her strongest statement yet of opposition to the bill that would grant the Fast Track Authority sought by the administration to negotiate a sweeping free trade deal with a dozen Pacific countries. The bill — co-sponsored by Dem Senator Max Baucus and GOP Rep. Dave Camp — is strongly opposed by labor, liberal groups and many Congressional Dems.

“No on Fast Track — Camp-Baucus — out of the question,” Pelosi said, according to a transcript of her remarks forwarded to me by her office. She also told assembled steelworkers: “We cannot support Camp-Baucus. We cannot support Camp-Baucus.”

This marks a significant hardening of Pelosi’s opposition to the Fast Track Authority bill. It doesn’t entirely rule out the possibility that she could support some version of Fast Track at some point, if its terms are overhauled to deal with her concerns about job loss from currency manipulation, and to create much more transparency around negotiations and give Dems much more input into them. But it creates a hurdle to the free trade measure, because it will be difficult to meet the conditions for supporting Fast Track that Pelosi is now laying down.

Indeed, at the labor event, Pelosi added: “We need transparency. We need a seat at the table to understand what they believe they are doing, so we can make it better. And if we don’t make it better, then we will not accept a path that is a job loser.”

Harry Reid has already declared his opposition to Fast Track, but opponents worry the GOP-controlled House could still pass the measure, since it has Republican support, putting pressure on the Senate to act. Pelosi had previously expressed serious concerns about the bill, but had stopped short of declaring outright opposition. Liberal groups such as Democracy for America have been heavily lobbying Pelosi to strengthen her position, to make it clearer the measure will get little to no Dem support in the House. So today’s declaration from Pelosi will be welcome.

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Fast Track would allow for quick up-or-down Congressional confirmation of any negotiated free trade agreement. Dem lawmakers worry that would dilute their influence, leading to a deal that opponents and some economists say could weaken environmental protections and lead to more job losses, erosion of wages, and worsening inequality due to globalization and technological change. Other Dems, however, have said a deal that boosts exports and creates more American jobs, while protecting workers, could dovetail with the Dem agenda

There is an enormous amount on the line here. As Alex Seitz-Wald recently detailed, the disagreement over the deal — which would cover a huge chunk of U.S. imports and exports — represents a major remaining “fault line” in the Democratic Party at a time when it has been uncharacteristically unified in ideological terms. Indeed, the Huffington Post recently explained that this fault line has immediate political ramifications:

There’s a lot at stake for Democrats and the president in working out their rough spots. If they don’t, Obama’s trade agenda stalls. And for Democrats, giving the White House too much authority could undercut the centerpiece of the 2014 election argument — that they are the party that will deal with income inequality and help the middle class. That’s because many in their own party, especially grassroots activists and unions, blame flaws in previous grand trade deals like the North American Free Trade Agreement for siphoning off middle class jobs.

For now, anyway, the left and progressive lawmakers seems to be holding the line.

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UPDATE: Charles Chamberlain, the executive director of Democracy for America, says in a statement:

While the fight against the TPP is far from over, the outspoken opposition to fast-track authority from both House and Senate Democratic leaders further marginalizes the handful of corporate Democrats who support this job-killing trade agreement.

UPDATE II: Becky Bond, political director for CREDO, which has also lobbied against Fast Track, says:

Nancy Pelosi has proven once again that she’s the best leader in the House that Democrats have had in a generation. With the top Democrats in the House and Senate now in our corner, momentum is clearly with those opposing fast track and the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

 

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