WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama's trade agenda took a beating on Friday, as House Democrats threw cold water on his bid to fast-track the biggest free trade pact since the 1990s, and 2016 presidential contender Hillary Clinton declined to back the plan.
Although Republican leaders in Congress are on board with Obama's effort to pass the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a sweeping deal between the U.S. and 11 Pacific nations, Democrats have been persistently critical of the negotiations. The White House had hoped that a Thursday compromise between Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) would help thaw progressive opposition.
Obama got no help from Clinton. Late Friday, her campaign released a statement saying she "will be watching closely to see what is being done to crack down on currency manipulation" and to "improve labor rights, protect the environment and health," as first reported by The New York Times.
"We shouldn’t be giving special rights to corporations at the expense of workers and consumers," Clinton's statement reads.
These are standard Democratic objections to the TPP -- that whatever gains the deal might create for economic growth will come at the expense of the middle class and the environment. Labor unions, environmental groups and open Internet advocates have aggressively opposed the pact. The fact that Clinton is echoing these concerns several years after the negotiations began says a lot about how liberals think the deal is shaping up. The Obama administration has kept drafts of the TPP deal secret, but parts have leaked, intensifying Democratic concerns.
Clinton's statement does not reject TPP outright. But by refraining from coming down on the deal, while echoing concerns that aren't likely to be assuaged -- the Obama administration has made clear that there is no currency manipulation provision in TPP -- Clinton is leaving Obama to fight for Democratic votes on his own.
And Obama faces an uphill battle, particularly in the House. On Friday, Rep. Sandy Levin (D-Mich.) vowed to take down the Wyden-Hatch fast track bill, which would strip lawmakers of the authority to amend any trade deal that Obama ultimately reaches. Without fast track, also known as Trade Promotion Authority, few on Capitol Hill believe TPP can win congressional approval. Levin is the top Democrat on Ways and Means Committee -- the key panel that any trade legislation must clear before getting to the House floor.
Fast-track legislation offers Congress the ability to set negotiating objectives for trade agreements -- about five years late for TPP -- and Levin said Friday that the terms of the bill fall well short of what he is prepared to support. Levin said he had been excluded from negotiations that led to the fast-track deal involving the White House, Hatch, Wyden and Ways and Means Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.).
"The administration has essentially given us the power to defeat TPA," Levin said. "I'm out to defeat the Hatch-Wyden bill."
Only 11 of the 46 members of the congressional New Democrat Coalition came out in favor of the bill after it was released. New Democrats are friendlier to major corporations than most other Democrats, and typically support free trade deals. House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) has suggested he needs at least 50 Democratic votes in order to pass a fast-track bill, due to opposition among Republicans skeptical of ceding authority to Obama.
But Democrats simply do not trust Obama on trade. Levin's exclusion from White House negotiations with a former GOP vice presidential candidate is just the latest in a long line of Democratic frustrations. Liberals in both chambers say that the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative has obstructed their access to TPP documents for years.
"From my own experience, USTR’s consultations with Congress have been -- I hesitate to use this adverb, but I will -- pathetically inadequate," Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) said at a Thursday hearing, before listing a host of failed efforts by his office to get information on the deal's impact on the auto industry.
While the president has publicly committed to requiring upgrades in environmental and labor standards in any bill, his trade enforcement record is very weak on both fronts.
"The sad reality is that widespread worker abuse is taking place all over the world while virtually nobody in the USTR’s office is paying attention," Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), a potential challenger to Clinton in the 2016 Democratic primary, told HuffPost. "Words on paper don’t mean anything if they are not enforced. ”
Sanders' sentiment is shared by many House Democrats, who say the president's recent promises on trade policy aren't backed up by his record in office. In November, the Government Accountability Office released two reports taking the Obama administration to task for spotty oversight of both labor and environmental conditions in existing trade agreements.
"USTR has never once brought a trade dispute over an environmental issue, over noncompliance with an environmental chapter, even when there has been clear documented evidence of violations," said Ilana Solomon, director of the Sierra Club’s responsible trade program.
A spokesman for USTR pointed HuffPost to a list of the agency's labor rights efforts in Guatemala, Colombia, Jordan, Bahrain and other nations.
But USTR has made little progress on those cases. Union members in Colombia have been assassinated repeatedly since Obama approved a trade pact with the country in 2011. The administration has raised only one formal labor rights challenge to a trade deal. That dispute involves Guatemala, and remains unresolved after six years.
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