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Hillary Clinton calls on Obama to negotiate a better trade deal

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton says President Obama should use Democrats' opposition to a major package of trade legislation as leverage to win a deal now being negotiated with Asian nations. (Video: Reuters)

This post has been updated.

DES MOINES -- Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Rodham Clinton broke weeks of silence on the trade debate that has deeply divided her party, telling a crowd here Sunday that she sides with House Democrats who led a rebellion against President Obama's trade agenda.

Clinton called on Obama to listen to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and the Democratic rank and file in Congress who want the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement to include better protections for American workers. If he doesn't, she said, "there should be no deal."

“In order to get a deal that meets these high standards, the president should listen to and work with his allies in Congress, starting with Nancy Pelosi, who had expressed their concerns about the impact that a weak agreement would have on our workers, to make sure we get the best, strongest deal possible," Clinton said. "And if we don’t get it, there should be no deal.”

Clinton's remarks came at a campaign rally at the Iowa State Fairgrounds in Des Moines, her first major public event in the state that hosts the first presidential caucuses.

As she began her remarks on trade, Clinton drew a particularly sharp contrast with Obama.

"No president would be a tougher negotiator on behalf of American workers, either with our trading partners or Republicans on Capitol Hill, than I would be," Clinton said.

However, Clinton stopped short of directly stating how she would have voted Friday, when House Democrats dealt a humiliating defeat to Obama's free-trade initiative despite the president's personal pleas for support. She focused her remarks on the emerging Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a 12-nation negotiation to forge one of the largest global trade deals ever considered. To get to the final stage of those talks, Obama has said he first needs Congress to approve "fast track" authority for trade deals, a process that won Senate approval last month and is now stalled in the House.

Her remarks had liberal opponents of the trade deal rejoicing, but supporters of the deal – including West Wing officials and aides to House GOP leaders – painted Clinton as avoiding the immediate issue at hand by not addressing policy specifics. By Tuesday, Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) is likely to hold a do-over vote on a piece of the trade package that Democrats have blocked, a worker retraining program, even though they actually support its objective. Until that gets approved, the entire trade package is stuck in the House.

But Clinton’s emphasis appeared to align her with the more liberal faction, led by Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), who pushed Pelosi into a position she had been trying avoid: a Democratic blockade of their party’s president.

Clinton has come under mounting pressure to join the trade debate -- including from insurgent rival Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who has been railing against Obama's trade agenda and earlier Sunday called on Clinton to join him to "stop this disastrous deal once and for all."

Clinton, who as Obama's first-term secretary of state was involved in trade negotiations, set out three broad parameters for the TPP. She said any agreement must include protections for U.S. workers, help raise wages and be in the country's national security interests.

But she signaled which way she leaned by twice referencing Pelosi, who supported the rebellion, and calling on him to work with House Democrats to achieve a better deal.

“Let’s take the lemons and turn it into lemonade," Clinton said.

Republicans criticized Clinton for not having a more definitive stance.

"Hillary Clinton's failure to actually take a position on trade is yet another indication she's running an overly-cautious campaign that's terrified of upsetting the far-left of her Party," Jeff Bechdel, spokesman for the GOP group America Rising, said in a statement. "Blandly stating that President Obama should work with Congress and turn lemons into lemonade is frankly embarrassing for someone who advocated for the Trans-Pacific Partnership just a few years ago."

Paul Kane contributed to this report.

Key moments from Hillary Clinton's official campaign launch speech in New York on Saturday. (Video: AP)