Twenty years ago, when President Bill Clinton was urging Congress to enact sweeping trade legislation over objections of important constituents in his own party, the face of the opposition were the middle-aged (and beyond) white, male leaders of  the AFL-CIO. For President Barack Obama, the dynamic may feel the same—trying to find enough Democrats to help Republicans pass a trade deal—but the coalition is a lot broader. In addition to labor, the president is being opposed by teachers, seniors, Internet freedom groups, and Sister Simone Campbell. 

Once the Senate approves fast track trade negotiating authority for Obama, which could happen as early as this week, the battle will move to the House, where it expected to unleash a major lobbying battle. On the one side, a president who is more engaged in legislative trench warfare than he has been in a long time over legislation that would give him authority to establish the Trans-Pacific Partnership. “This is personal for him,” Representative Jan Schakowsky of Illinois, a member of the Democratic House leadership, told Bloomberg reporters and editors.

President Barack Obama speaks at Nike headquarters in Beaverton, Ore., on May 8, 2015.
President Barack Obama speaks at Nike headquarters in Beaverton, Ore., on May 8, 2015.
Photographer: Natalie Behring/Getty Images

On the other: a coalition of  opponents that is far more diverse than the one that tried unsuccessfully to torpedo Clinton's North American Free Trade Agreement with Mexico and Canada, the first of several trade pacts struck since the 1990s that critics say have cost U.S. jobs and depressed wages.

The newcomers to the fight say they are there because they have seen the results of the earlier trade agreements and now know better. “NAFTA really caught a number of folks off guard,” said Laura Peralta-Schulte, a lobbyist for NETWORK, Sister Simone's national Catholic social justice lobby. Sister Simone became a national figure in 2012, when her Nuns on the Bus campaign opposed the House Republican budget.

Now, she's fighting the White House, part of a faith coalition that includes 47 different organizations opposed to the trade deal, according to Peralta-Schulte. She cited concerns over the secrecy of trade negotiations and the impact on marginalized communities, including populations in Malaysia targeted by human traffickers. “The assumption is you have a trade agreement and something magically lifts standards, but as we've seen in other countries like Colombia, that's not the case,” she said.

Unions remain a backbone of the opposition to the TPP. The United Steelworkers and United Auto Workers unions are among those who've organized plant demonstrations, and the UAW is mobilizing retired auto workers. The AFL-CIO has been leafletting, including in the states and districts of lawmakers like those of Senator Ron Wyden, the chief Democratic negotiator on trade.

“This particular agreement is likely to be the last multilateral trade agreement in a generation,” and it “does nothing really more on labor and the environment than previous agreements,'” said Bill Samuel, AFL-CIO director of government affairs.

This time around, however, labor is now joined by a disparate—yet politically formidable—coalition.

President Bill Clinton signs the North American Free Trade Agreement on Dec. 8, 1993.
President Bill Clinton signs the North American Free Trade Agreement on Dec. 8, 1993.
Photographer: Paul J. Richards/AFP

Among the most active groups are environmental advocacy organizations like the Sierra Club, which made more than $1.6 million in contributions to congressional candidates during 2014, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, and last year spent some $360,000 lobbying Congress. The group has held rallies and phone banks and is running online and radio ads. 

It says expanded trade opens the door to more hydraulic fracturing and other practices that harm the environment. The Pacific agreement would also allow foreign corporations to sue countries whose policies they believe undercut profits, mainly oil and gas companies targeting environmental regulations.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital rights organization concerned about free speech and Internet copyright provisions threatening users' rights, says its 22,000 members have been e-mailing and tweeting at their representatives. EEF has had success with such campaigns before: It was one of the organizations that helped bring down the Stop Online Piracy Act despite bipartisan support for the bill designed to crack down on violation of  intellectual property rights.

Meantime some seniors are worried about the effects of more open markets on drug pricing that could increase their costs. “Foreign corporations or subsidiaries will be able to challenge a number of public programs,” including those providing Medicare drug discounts, the Alliance for Retired Americans said in a May 12 letter to the House and Senate.

In addition, a group called Food & Water Watch, which is concerned that the agreement will result in increased fracking and what it perceives as a negative impact on local farms, has sent 82,907 messages to Congress and held at least 15 lobbying visits including rallies and press events. 

On the other side, there is also a large coalition of business groups, including from the technology, retail and manufacturing sectors.

Republican leaders believe a handful of House Democrats will ultimately join with them in granting the president negotiating powers he would use to close a 12-nation Trans-Pacific trade agreement. Yet, with the vast majority of Democrats opposing him, the vote will be uncomfortably close for Obama. But there are no more than 20 Democrats who've publicly expressed support for Obama. In 1993, 102 Democrats voted for Clinton's NAFTA legislation.

Compounding his challenges, Democrats say, is a strained relationship with many lawmakers in Obama's party that makes it harder for the Cabinet-level outreach strategy he's deploying to be as effective as Clinton's was around NAFTA.

While California Representative Loretta Sanchez, a Democrat who plans to oppose the legislation, says “I see more effort” by the White House on this issue than on others, she doesn't think the president has enough political capital for it to pay off. “When you don't have a relationship with the membership, it's really difficult to come in at the last minute to say 'do this,'” said Sanchez, a member of the New Democrat coalition of moderates in the House.

The White House says the deal would expand opportunities for U.S. workers, farmers, ranchers, and businesses by giving them access to some of the biggest emerging markets. Opponents say the negotiations have inadequate protections for workers and the environment and cover a range of issues beyond any previous accord, including access to medicines, financial regulations, and food-safety measures.

“It's not just the interest groups, it's the issues that run deeply,” said Michigan Representative Sander Levin, the top Democrat on the House Ways and Means Committee.

Representative Luis Gutierrez, an Illinois Democrat who was a freshman lawmaker in 1993, said whatever outreach Obama is conducting pales in comparison to that of Clinton's administration. He recalled former Chicago Mayor Richard Daley creating such stress during an arm-twisting session that Gutierrez was driven to smoking a cigarette. Daley's brother, Bill, was leading the White House effort to win the legislation.

Clinton operated a war room targeting Democrats who might support his bid, romancing potential supporters and punishing those who refused him. Following his smoking session, Gutierrez was also offered by Bill Richardson, then a New Mexico congressman close to the White House, an unrelated role leading “a national crusade on citizenship” for immigrants in exchange for his support, said Gutierrez. “It was very intense lobbying,” he said.

Gutierrez, who represents a heavy manufacturing district, was noncommittal. Later, he announced his opposition to NAFTA before boarding a flight to Washington to meet with Clinton. Upon landing, he was informed there was no reason to come to the White House.

In the end, Clinton got 102 Democrats, including the future House speaker, Nancy Pelosi, to back NAFTA. By contrast, today “nobody's come to me and said, 'Hey, what is it going to take?'” said Gutierrez. 

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