WASHINGTON — Emotional disagreements over trade erupted in Congress on Wednesday, when a liberal senator delayed a committee’s likely endorsement of a top trade priority for President Obama.
The day began with Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, predicting a “strong bipartisan vote” for “fast track” legislation. The measure would renew presidential authority to present trade deals that Congress can endorse or reject but not amend.
But liberal Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., a fierce opponent of the trade legislation, invoked a Senate scheduling rule to delay the committee’s actions for hours.
“This job-killing trade deal has been negotiated in secret,” said Sanders, who made a lengthy Senate speech denouncing the legislation. “It was drafted with input by special interests and corporate lobbyists, but not from the elected representatives of the American people.”
Hatch rejected the claims, saying fast track and other trade proposals have been carefully negotiated and will undergo long public scrutiny.
“We need to be doing all we can tear down barriers to American exports while, at the same time, creating enforceable rules for our trading partners so we can be sure that American workers and job creators are competing on a level playing field,” Hatch said.
He said the committee would work late into the night if necessary to address many proposed amendments. The committee resumed its meeting in the late afternoon.
The Hatch-Sanders dispute is one of many emerging as Congress turns to trade proposals bitterly opposed by labor unions and others who say trade pacts hurt U.S. jobs.
Obama says his Democratic opponents have their facts wrong. He wants fast-track powers to help push free-trade proposals such as the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership.
“I would not be doing this trade deal if I did not think it was good for the middle class,” Obama said in an interview Tuesday with MSNBC. “When you hear folks make a lot of suggestions about how bad this trade deal is, when you dig into the facts, they are wrong.”
Few issues divide Democrats more than trade. Obama, like former President Bill Clinton, supports free trade, but many Democratic lawmakers do not.
Republicans generally support trade pacts. But Obama can’t count on them alone to push the fiercely debated bills through the GOP-controlled House and Senate.