Some of the largest U.S. business groups are lining up behind President Barack Obama to pressure Congress to clear the way for a pair of trade deals that could set rules for more than half the world’s economy.
The agreements, with 11 Pacific Rim countries and the 28-nation European Union may also help Obama deliver on his promise to double U.S. exports above 2009 levels by the end of the year, an increasingly distant goal.
Standing in his way: almost 200 Democrats and Republicans who say they won’t yield to him the “fast track” authority to hammer out agreements without congressional amendments.
“Fast-track authority is an undemocratic seizure of power that usurps our ability to represent the American people,” Representative Louise Slaughter, a New York Democrat, said. “There’s absolutely no reason why it should be renewed.”
In the coming days, Senate Finance Committee leaders Max Baucus, a Montana Democrat, Orrin Hatch, a Utah Republican, and House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp, a Michigan Republican, plan to introduce a bill to give Obama fast-track authority. The ensuing debate may produce one of the most contentious discussions of trade policy on Capitol Hill since the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement 20 years ago.
The Trade Benefits America Coalition, led by groups including the Business Roundtable, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the American Farm Bureau Federation and the National Association of Manufacturers, is backing Obama. The coalition -- whose approximately 160 members include Boeing Co. (BA), MetLife Inc. (MET), Pfizer Inc. and Wal-Mart Stores Inc. (WMT) -- has ramped up its lobbying campaign in recent months.
The coalition has held hundreds of meetings with federal, state and local officials to counter growing opposition to the administration’s agenda. They’ve run ads in influential papers and started a website to tout what they see as the benefits of trade-promotion authority, or TPA, as fast-track is formally known.
The group says the authority is constitutional and it doesn’t cede power to the president.
“Updated TPA legislation would provide clear guidance on Congress’ requirement for trade agreements,” Doug Oberhelman, chief executive officer of Caterpillar Inc. (CAT) of Peoria, Illinois, wrote in an opinion piece running in McClatchy Co. (MNI) newspapers. Oberhelman is also chairman of the Business Roundtable’s international engagement committee.
The lobbying campaign runs parallel to a White House push for trade-promotion authority. U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman, who is seeking to complete the Pacific-region accord this year, recently stepped up his calls for a TPA bill. Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker made it a prominent part of her agenda for the agency that she unveiled in November.
Trade-promotion authority is “a congressional prerogative,” and we want to work closely with Congress to get a broad, bipartisan bill, Froman said today in an interview on Bloomberg Television’s “In the Loop with Betty Liu.” Lawmakers are “very much aware of what it is we’re negotiating,” adding that his office has had more than 1,100 meetings about the Pacific-region deal on Capitol Hill.
While fast-track authority allows only for an up-or-down vote on the accords, it also lets lawmakers set parameters for the agreements on issues including labor and environmental protections, digital commerce and agricultural trade.
Congress last voted on a fast-track bill in 2002, and the authority expired in 2007. Supporters say it can help the U.S. strike better trade deals by assuring other nations that the accords won’t be altered at a later date. Obama asked Congress for the special privilege during a speech in Chattanooga, Tennessee on July 30. Lawmakers have been working since early last year on a bill.
Critics and opponents say they expect a high-profile battle on Capitol Hill this month.
“This is truly an historic moment in international trade policy,” said Mike Dolan a lobbyist for the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, a group that wants more protections for workers. “It’s the last time we’re going to be talking about the model” for future trade accords, he said.
“If it comes back looking and smelling like the old fast-track, we’d be opposed to it,” Leo Gerard, president of the United Steelworkers of America union, said in an interview. Dolan said the Teamsters would be in “lockstep solidarity” against a version of the bill that waters down U.S. regulations.
Opponents say a new bill must show that trade deals will create jobs for Americans and include protections for workers whose employment may be affected by such matters as outsourcing, Internet trade, currency manipulation and government competition.
“Flawed free-trade agreements like NAFTA have destroyed American manufacturers and American jobs for more than 20 years,” Slaughter said on a Dec. 10 conference call with reporters. “We have to stop that from happening again.”
In November, 151 of the House’s 201 Democrats wrote to Obama with the same complaint. A day earlier, 23 conservative Republicans said they wouldn’t approve legislation that would cede congressional powers to the president. Fourteen other lawmakers of both parties have also expressed concerns.
“There won’t be fast track granted if it doesn’t change,” Representative Rosa DeLauro, a Connecticut Democrat who was one of the leaders behind the House letter, said today in a telephone interview. Issues including renewal of long-term unemployment benefits, which expired last week, will compete with fast-track legislation for lawmakers’ attention in the weeks ahead, she said.
With the debate about to unfold this month, advocates of the measure and the Pacific trade agreement are starting to push back against opposition.
“On my side of the aisle, Republicans need to resist the temptation to buy the misleading narrative that TPA would simply give away the store to the Obama administration,” Senator Jeff Flake, an Arizona Republican who supports fast track, said during a Dec. 18 speech in Washington.
Several elements could prolong the discussion. Representative Sander Levin of Michigan, the top Democrat on the House Ways and Means Committee, has said he wants a stronger role for Congress and measures to prevent currency manipulation. Baucus, the Senate’s top trade official and co-author of the trade legislation, is also Obama’s nominee to be ambassador to China and may leave Congress in the coming months.
Lori Wallach, director of the Global Trade Watch program at Public Citizen, a Washington-based consumer group, said the outlook for congressional approval of fast-track legislation is uncertain ahead of November elections, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid probably won’t act before a House vote.
“Given prospects in the House for passage look so dim, I can’t imagine leader Reid would bring up a vote on something this unpopular given the many dicey Senate elections coming unless and until the House votes,” she said in a phone interview.
Reid’s office didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Ed Gresser, a former adviser in the U.S. Trade Representative’s office under President Bill Clinton, said a similar number of Republicans opposed giving the White House fast-track negotiating authority in 2002, and that Obama will be able to persuade enough Democrats to support a new bill.
“It actually is quite do-able for the administration,” he said in a phone interview.
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