WASHINGTON -- The White House's trade plans are on hold, at least for now, Vice President Joe Biden said Friday, in welcome news to many Democrats who oppose the sweeping deals.
President Barack Obama has been pushing for ambitious free-trade deals with Europe and 11 Pacific nations. But those deals depend first on Congress granting the president so-called fast-track trade authority. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has already said he opposes recently proposed legislation from former Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) and Rep. Dave Camp (R-Mich.) that would grant that authority, and House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi rejected the Baucus-Camp proposal on Wednesday.
After speaking to lawmakers at a Democratic policy retreat in Cambridge, Md., Biden acknowledged that Obama would not get his trade authority any time soon, in spite of having pushed for it in his recent State of the Union address.
"Nancy, I know it's not coming up now,” Biden said to Pelosi, according to a Democratic aide in the room.
An aide to the vice president said later Friday that reports that Biden had indicated the administration's trade agenda was on hold were "inaccurate."
"While the Vice President said he understands where some members of the House and Senate are coming from, he made a clear case for the Administration’s trade priorities, including the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations, which he stated are very much in the economic and strategic interest of the U.S," the aide said in an email to The Huffington Post. "He explained our national trade priorities in detail."
Opposition to the trade deals -- especially the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which is a major part of Obama's pivot toward Asia -- runs across the political spectrum. Opponents fear the TPP will undermine labor and environmental standards in the United States, and cost American workers' jobs. Many Democrats are also worried that if the White House were to pursue huge trade treaties that remind people of NAFTA and its subsequent job losses, it would undercut their pro-middle class message in the 2014 election.
Democrats and many others are also angry that the talks crafting the deals have been shrouded in secrecy, with the details hidden from the public.
Biden also assured the lawmakers in the Friday address that the administration would be transparent about its plans.
"Look at me, I promise," Biden said, according to an aide. It was unclear if Biden meant transparent to the general public, or just lawmakers, who already have access to the sealed information about the deals. Obama's trade representative recently cut off a briefing to Vermont lawmakers when they insisted that the public be allowed to listen in.
While Biden seemed to be admitting the trade plans are on hold, neither he nor Pelosi has ruled out pushing for them in the future. Indeed, Pelosi told reporters Wednesday that while she opposes the fast-track bill from Baucus and Camp, she favors trade deals if they are done right.
"I have worked with many of our colleagues to try to find some common ground, but in its present form, it is unacceptable. That is not ... a rejection of the president's trade agenda. It's a rejection of the current form of the Camp-Baucus [bill]," Pelosi said. "But the trade issue is a very important one, because we're the party of John F. Kennedy, we're the party of free trade, fair trade, and we believe that the global economy is here to stay, and we're part of it."
Still, Biden's remarks show the White House understands neither chamber of Congress is likely to push ahead with a fast-track bill in the current climate. And that means the administration's best chance for success will not come until after the elections.
The article has been updated to include comment from the office of the vice president.
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