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Ahead Of State Of The Union, Progressives Brace For Disappointment On Trade Policy

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WASHINGTON -- Progressives will be up on their feet cheering at Tuesday night's State of the Union when President Barack Obama announces that he is raising the minimum wage for federal contractors. But their celebration will end quickly if the president pushes another of his priorities: the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact.

Obama has been urging Congress to use its "fast-track authority" to sign off on the still-unfinished deal between 12 Pacific nations. If lawmakers agree to fast-track the measure, they wouldn't be able to offer amendments and would have to take an up-or-down vote on whatever deal the administration eventually reaches. The TPP has the backing of corporate interest groups, but liberals have balked over its potential to undermine environmental, public health and labor standards, as well as ship U.S. jobs overseas. The White House has yet to find a House Democratic cosponsor for it.

Liberal Democrats say the TPP has no place in a State of the Union address centered on income inequality.

"It's impossible to argue for a better wage and a higher standard of living for Americans with the TPP," said Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), a co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. "It's completely counterintuitive."

The president needs to "think long and hard about extending this TPP trade agreement, which is not going to be good for working families," Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) said Friday on MSNBC.

The White House has kept mum on how, or if, Obama will try to sell the trade deal in his national address. Not only have progressives railed against it, but some Republicans oppose it too on the grounds that the president is overreaching by calling for the bill to be fast-tracked.

"I can tell you that trade promotion authority is a key part of a comprehensive strategy that the president has to increase exports and support more American jobs at higher wages," White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said in his Thursday briefing. "We are actively working with Democrats and Republicans in Congress throughout the legislative process to pass [Trade Promotion Authority] legislation with as broad bipartisan support as possible."

Asked if it is critical to the White House that the TPP passes in 2014, Carney was vague.

"Well, it's a priority of the president’s," he said. "I'm not going to put a timeframe on it, but it’s a priority and we're working towards its passage."

Nonetheless, leading progressive groups will be watching closely for any mention of the trade deal in Tuesday's speech. They warn that Obama's support for it could hurt Democrats in the 2014 elections.

"I'm a little worried about the TPP agreement, that he's decided this is going to be a hill he wants to fight on," said Neil Sroka of Democracy For America. "If he wants Democrats to run on issues of income inequality in 2014, working at the same time to pass a trade bill, when we've seen time and time again that these trade bills help the 1 percent at the expense of everyone else -- you can't do both."

Adam Green of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee said there is a "real hunger" right now among Democratic voters for leaders who stand up to corporate interests on major economic issues.

"To the extent that the administration has holdover positions in siding with corporations, whether it's trade deals or other issues, obviously that hurts the image in voters minds of the Democratic party helping the little guys," Green said.

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