U.S. lawmakers on opposite ends of the political spectrum are objecting to putting trade deals on a fast track for congressional approval, threatening one of the business community’s top priorities.
Democratic Representatives Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut and George Miller of California said today that 151 members of their party in the House have signed a letter to President Barack Obama opposing him getting fast-track trade negotiating authority. Yesterday, 22 House Republicans, including some aligned with the small-government Tea Party movement, sent their own letter saying they won’t give ground on being able to change trade pacts.
The bipartisan objections complicate the efforts of Obama who, with the backing of business groups such as the Business Roundtable and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, is attempting to negotiate two of the largest trade deals in history with Europe and the Pacific region.
“We used to have a bipartisan coalition for free trade, but both parties now have robust elements that for different reasons challenge trade promotion authority, and it makes things complicated for those who want these trade deals,” said Stu Rothenberg, editor of the Washington-based nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report.
With trade promotion authority, a president can demand an up-or-down vote in Congress on deals, giving trading partners assurances their agreed-to terms won’t unravel through amendments. Congress last voted to renew fast-track authority in 2002, and it expired in 2007.
“We are strong supporters of American trade expansion,” wrote the Republicans led by Representatives Walter Jones of North Carolina and Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, a leader of the Tea Party Caucus, in their letter to Obama yesterday.
“We are also strong supporters of the U.S. Constitution,” which they said gives Congress “exclusive authority to set the terms of trade.”
DeLauro told reporters at a press conference in Washington today that it is “past time for members of Congress to reassert our authority over these trade deals.”
They’ve also sent a letter to Obama outlining their concerns about a lack of congressional consultation on a forthcoming pact with Pacific-rim nations.
“Over time Congress has lost its leverage to reshape these trade deals,” she said. “The old fast-track authority must be history.”
Organized labor, a traditional ally of Democrats, would just as soon see the debate delayed until closer to next year’s congressional elections, when members can fan out and pressure lawmakers to add protections against job losses, said Gary Hubbard, a spokesman for the United Steelworkers of America. Better yet, he said, would be waiting until after the 2014 elections, when Democrats may hold more seats in the Republican-led House.
“The more time we buy with delays, the better,” Hubbard said.
Negotiations on the terms of a measure renewing the fast-track authority began months ago, led by the top Democrats and Republicans on the Senate Finance Committee and the House Ways and Means Committee.
Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, a Montana Democrat and backer of fast-track authority, said last week that while he hopes to get a deal before his panel by year’s end, he isn’t sure the full Senate would act before 2014 begins.
While Baucus wants to marry any fast-track measure with trade adjustment assistance for workers who lose their jobs due to the elimination of trade barriers, the Senate Republican negotiator -- Orrin Hatch of Utah -- said he opposes the financial aid.
“They want to put union language into every trade bill, and that shouldn’t be the case,” Hatch said in an interview.
Meanwhile, the Democratic House negotiator, Sander Levin of Michigan, is seeking a host of labor-backed provisions, according to a congressional aide familiar with the talks. Those include a process for Congress to negate fast-track authority on a deal lawmakers later object to, with trade committees able to vote to renege on the speedy approval process, said the aide, who requested anonymity when discussing the specifics.
Levin also wants to update negotiating objectives for labor and the environment in trade deals, the aide said. And he is pushing to include a currency measure both chambers have passed that would allow U.S. companies to petition for duties on imports from China to compensate for the effect of a weak yuan.
Approval of fast-track authority is key to completing trade deals, said Michael Moore, a professor of economics and international affairs at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. “You need the legislative apparatus in place to pass these agreements without amendments,” Moore said.
U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman has been meeting with lawmakers about the need to renew the authority. U.S. officials have said they intend this year to reach an agreement with Japan and 10 other Pacific-region nations. Treasury Secretary Jack Lew is visiting Japan, China, Singapore, and other nations this week, in part to help propel the talks.
The U.S. and the 27-nation EU, which already have the world’s largest bilateral economic relationship, have begun talks on a separate trade pact.
Business groups say they blame Obama for delays in getting a fast-track measure through Congress.
“I think you need something to jump-start the congressional process beyond where it is right now,” said Bill Reinsch, president of the National Foreign Trade Council, a group that supports expanded trade that includes Caterpillar Inc., ExxonMobil Corp., and Pfizer Inc. as members. The bipartisan talks to craft a bill “are in good faith, but there’s no pressing need to finish.”
Christopher Wenk, a trade lobbyist at the U.S. Chamber, said his group has held 300 meetings on Capitol Hill this year with lawmakers and their aides to try to prod the debate forward, and would rather see legislation proceed before election-year considerations take hold.
“We want to see a bill introduced as soon as possible,” Wenk said.
Republicans -- whose broad support helped pass a similar measure through the House on a 215-214 vote in 2002 during George W. Bush’s presidency -- face pressures from the Tea Party movement that didn’t exist then.
The Club for Growth, for instance, opposes any further funding for the trade adjustment assistance that Baucus seeks, said Barney Keller, the group’s spokesman. “We view it as a give-away to labor unions and we think the whole program should be eliminated,” Keller said.
Heritage Action for America, an issue-advocacy group affiliated with the Heritage Foundation think tank, is likely to treat the trade adjustment assistance as a key vote next year, said Dan Holler, the group’s spokesman.
“The Trade Adjustment Assistance program is costly, unnecessary and duplicative,” he said.
Senator Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican, and Levin told reporters today that they would not support the Trans-Pacific Partnership unless it includes a provision to address currency manipulation.
The Washington-based American Automotive Policy Council -- whose members include Ford Motor Co., General Motors Co. and Chrysler Group LLC -- and the AFL-CIO labor organization have also called for the accord to deal with the issue.
Graham said the union of the business and labor group form the basis for a “powerful coalition.”