Trade rumble: Democrats stuck between Elizabeth Warren, Barack Obama – Politico
President Barack Obama on Tuesday took aim at his prime antagonist on free trade: “Elizabeth Warren is wrong on trade,” he told MSNBC’s Chris Matthews on “Hardball.”
Obama’s tough comments capture the challenge in selling the Democratic Party on free trade, where strong attacks by Warren, labor leaders and other trade skeptics have put pro-trade Democrats on the defensive.
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Sen. Warren (D-Mass) declared she was “ready for a fight” during an anti-trade rally last week in front of the Capitol.
Democratic lawmakers like Rep. Suzan DelBene of Washington now find themselves caught in the crossfire between Obama and Warren. But which direction she chooses will go a long way toward determining whether the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership ever comes into being.
DelBene, who is facing her first trade vote since being elected in 2012, is one of several dozen House members who could provide the White House the margin it needs to obtain so-called fast-track authority, which would enable Obama to more freely negotiate the massive Pacific trade deal.
Her Seattle-area district is typical of those of other Democrats targeted by the White House. It’s evenly split between liberals and conservatives, but includes many political progressives who are pressuring DelBene to vote against giving the administration the authority necessary to negotiate the biggest trade deal in history. They say it’s a raw deal for workers.
Her district, which stretches from the Seattle suburbs to the Canadian border, is also home to Microsoft and a robust farm exporting industry that includes the nation’s top raspberry-producing county.
It’s not clear whether DelBene is one of the 10 to 15 members that another Democratic House member says are in the White House cross hairs. But she could be.
“There is a target group of people that are probably going to keep their powder dry until the vote,” the member said.
DelBene’s decision — and the votes of a few dozen Democrats in Congress — will make or break Obama’s legacy on trade as he tries to win so-called fast-track trade negotiating authority to wrap up a five-year effort to close the TPP and other pending deals.
“As I have said all along, for any trade promotion authority bill to gain my support, it must require strong, enforceable environmental and labor protections,” she told POLITICO Pro in an email.
Trade promotion authority legislation would give the president the power to complete trade deals with only up-or-down votes from Congress and is seen as integral to both reaching a bilateral agreement with Japan and bringing home the 12-nation TPP agreement — the largest trade deal in U.S. history. But an indication that the fast-track bill doesn’t have enough votes could deal a blow to the negotiations.
Japan wants the legislation in place before it makes final concessions on market access in politically sensitive agricultural sectors like rice, dairy, beef and pork. If the bill seems to be moving, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe may be more comfortable shaking on a deal with President Barack Obama when he visits Washington next week even if there is no hard vote count, congressional aides said.
The fast-track bill, introduced last week by Sens. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), is scheduled for a markup on Wednesday in advance of a full floor vote as early as late April. The House Ways and Means Committee, where Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) is a fast-track champion, will review legislation on Wednesday ahead of an expected markup on Thursday.
U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman and other senior administration officials are making both an economic and national security case for the legislation as they scramble for Democratic votes, congressional aides said. They’re telling lawmakers that a vote for fast track is key to passing the giant Asia-Pacific trade deal, which is important because it would be the most progressive trade deal in history and because it would stop China from setting the rules on trade in the region.
The business community, meanwhile, is hunting for votes on both the right and the left, with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce focusing mainly on Republicans, while the less partisan Business Roundtable handles many of the Democrats.
The White House would love to get at least as many Democratic votes for the trade promotion authority bill as it got for a free-trade pact with Colombia in 2011. That agreement, one of the most controversial in recent history, passed with the support of 31 Democrats in the House and 21 Democrats in the Senate. But even those tallies could be too high for TPA.
“China is a gigantic, a gigantic force sitting on top of all nations smaller, except India, in the region and is able to do what Russia is able to do in Europe with regard to oil. … They have significant economic power to deny access to their markets or open access to their markets for all of those regional powers,” Vice President Joe Biden told 29 lawmakers at the New Democrat Coalition PAC retreat Friday.
A senior Democratic aide who attended the retreat said some members on the fence indicated that the national security message is resonating with their constituents.
“The fact that they have pretty skillfully woven in the national security message has been a lift to some members,” the aide said.
Another key point of concern for undecided Democrats is the inclusion of trade adjustment assistance, a program that provides job retraining benefits to workers displaced by trade deals. Wyden and Ryan agreed to move the fast-track bill simultaneously with the renewal of the assistance program, which has become a prerequisite for Democratic votes on a trade bill.
DelBene said she was encouraged that Republicans have agreed to move a bill to renew the worker-assistance program alongside the fast-track bill.
“[Trade adjustment assistance] has helped many in my district get the skills they need to stay competitive, and it is a much-needed program to protect our workforce,” she said. “I will continue to closely monitor this bill as it moves through the legislative process.”
The fast-track bill is expected to easily pass its first test on Wednesday in the Senate Finance Committee with support from most, if not all, of the panel’s 14 Republicans. If the legislation were to barely squeak through, it would raise questions about its chances of getting 60 votes needed on the floor to block any filibuster effort.
One wild card, Sen. Tim Scott, a South Carolina Republican, has not yet said how he intends to vote on the bill.
Republicans control the Senate with 54 seats, most of whom are expected to vote for TPA. But every vote that they lose on the Republican side is one more that they need from Democrats.
Four of the chamber’s Republicans — Alabama Sens. Richard Shelby and Jeff Sessions, South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham and West Virginia Sen. Shelley Moore Capito — voted against the authority in 2002, but it’s not clear yet where they stand on this year’s version of the bill.
Only one Finance Committee Democrat — Sen. Tom Carper of Delaware — has publicly endorsed the Hatch-Wyden-Ryan bill. But at least five other Democrats on the panel are seen as potential yes votes based on their support for earlier trade deals. Those include Sens. Maria Cantwell of Washington, Bill Nelson of Florida, Michael Bennet of Colorado and Mark Warner of Virginia.
One more possible yes could come from Sen. Ben Cardin, but that largely depends on whether the Maryland Democrat decides that new human rights provisions in the TPA bill are strong enough to address his concerns. He told POLITICO on Monday that he is “not fully satisfied” with the provisions but said he is working with the USTR to see whether some improvements can be made.
“I’m very mindful that this is novel to include [objectives] in TPA [on] governance and human rights and capacity building,” Cardin said. “But we are dealing with countries that are challenged in each of these areas.“
Anywhere from five to 10 other Democrats could back the bill when it hits the Senate floor, especially if the worker assistance program is approved alongside the fast-track legislation.
The Senate’s No. 1 and No. 2 Democrats — Harry Reid of Nevada and Dick Durbin of Illinois — are expected to oppose TPA along with the Democratic-leader-in-waiting, Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York.
Reid said he doesn’t plan to twist the arms of other Democrats to deny Obama a legislative victory.
The real battle for fast track is expected in the House of Representatives.
The White House needs a simple majority, or 217 votes currently, to win approval in the lower chamber. Republicans control the House with 244 votes, but could struggle to come up with more than more 200 votes for the bill because of the distrust many party members feel for Obama.
Only 35 of the 244 Republicans now in the House were members of Congress in 2002, when TPA was last approved, and seven of them voted to deny giving George W. Bush the authority. More than a dozen Republicans wrote a letter to Obama in 2013, saying they planned to oppose TPA because it undermines Congress’ constitutional authority over trade.
One Republican who might vote for the fast-track bill is Rep. Tim Huelskamp, a Kansas Republican with tea party affiliations.
“While I am still reviewing the actual Trade Promotion Authority bill, a successful trade agreement will increase market access for Kansas agricultural products,” Huelskamp said. “It will also solidify the rules of play for trade. These are two very big positives as Kansan ranchers and farmers like myself are eager to compete even more in the global marketplace.”
So far, only 13 Democrats have indicated they could support the legislation, well short of the 66 who voted for trade deals with South Korea and Panama in 2011 or even the 31 who backed the Colombia pact. A solid 14 Democrats in the House have confirmed they are voting against the measure, while another 119 seem unlikely to support it based on previous statements.
The White House is targeting more than 40 Democrats who voted for at least the South Korea and Panama agreements in 2011, as well as a dozen or so newer members of Congress who come from districts that depend on trade for economic growth. Those include Texas Rep. Joaquin Castro, whose twin brother, Julian, serves in the Obama administration.
At least one Texas Democrat with a record of supporting trade deals will not be voting for fast track, however.
“While I have voted for many trade agreements, I do not believe that Congress should relinquish its trade oversight authority,” Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D-Texas) told POLITICO. “This really is a fast track — seeking to railroad the Trans-Pacific Partnership through while USTR hides from Congress the most important details.”