WASHINGTON -- Just before President Barack Obama pleaded with members of his party on Friday to support a bill to "fast track" his proposed trade agreements, the top Democrat on the House committee writing the legislation criticized the president for squandering the chance to win that support.
'The administration and the Republicans have missed an opportunity which could have led to a bipartisan support that always has been my aim," Rep. Sander Levin (D-Mich.), the ranking Democrat on the House Ways and Means Committee, told reporters shortly before Obama spoke at a press conference on Friday.
On Thursday, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and Ranking Member Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), along with House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), introduced legislation that would give Obama the ability to fast track his controversial trade pacts. The bill, known officially as Trade Promotion Authority, would raise Obama's chances of success by permitting expedited procedures in Congress that bar amendments and stop senators from mounting filibusters.
Obama needs TPA in order to negotiate a number of massive global trade deals, with the two largest being the Trans-Pacific Partnership with a dozen nations and the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership with Europe. Together, these two agreements -- which would cover about two-thirds of global trade -- dwarf all previous trade pacts, including NAFTA.
Levin said that by failing to address Democrats' concerns about the deals, Obama and the sponsors of the TPA legislation had dramatically raised the chances that opponents will seek to block the measure.
"The administration has essentially given us the power to defeat TPA," Levin said during a discussion with reporters in which he released seven pages of objections to the fast-track legislation that he said had not been addressed.
The Michigan Democrat's comments may be of particular concern to the administration because while Levin had previously been critical of the trade negotiations, he had not come out against granting Obama the fast track.
That's no longer the case.
After Hatch, Wyden and Ryan culminated negotiations with the White House over TPA that excluded Levin and other Democrats, Levin announced his opposition in no uncertain terms.
"I'm out to defeat the Hatch-Wyden bill," he said Friday.
While some Democrats are likely to stick with the administration, Levin said that number was shrinking.
"My view is shared by a lot of people, a lot of people," he said. "In terms of TPA it's the overwhelming view within the Democratic caucus in the House."
In his press conference, Obama acknowledged the divisions in his party on the issue, particularly among lawmakers who represent manufacturing towns that were devastated by previous trade agreements.
But Obama insisted that his administration has learned from past mistakes, and said his TPA framework has "exceptional" protections relating to labor, environment and human rights.
"In many ways this is the most far-reaching and progressive TPA that we've seen going through Congress," Obama said.
"The trade agreement I'm proposing would actually strengthen our ability to force other markets open and strengthen our position compared to where we are right now," the president continued. "Being opposed to this new trade agreement is essentially a ratification of the status quo."
Levin, however, disagreed, saying it was the new TPA bill that represented the status quo. With the exception of new language on human rights and a few other minor changes, he said, the legislation is virtually identical to a measure introduced last year by former Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) and former Rep. Dave Camp (R-Mich.) that went nowhere in Congress.
"Why in the world would it now have support when Hatch and Wyden is essentially the same except for the addition of a human rights provision?" Levin said.
Obama acknowledged that it would not be easy to get members of his party on board.
"The politics around trade has always been tough, particularly in the Democratic Party, because people have memories of outsourcing and job loss," Obama said. "The point I've made to my labor friends and my progressive friends is that companies that are looking for just low-cost labor, they've already left. We're already at a disadvantage right now."
But Democrats like Levin think the trade deals currently in the works don't do enough to shift that disadvantage and fail to address major drivers of job losses, such as currency manipulation that makes U.S. products more expensive overseas.
Levin said that the White House would be in a much better position if it had been willing to work with Democratic opponents.
"I've told the administration and I've told the world that the best way for [the United States Trade Representative] to be able to assure our negotiating partners that he has the authority to wrap something up is to have a real teamwork with the U.S. Congress," Levin said. "A lot of us on the Democratic side have looked for that kind of teamwork, and there have been a lot of discussions, but on the major outstanding issues there have not been the changes that need to be made."
"We just can't give a free hand, essentially, to our negotiators and essentially say all we have, the only power, is yes or no at the end," Levin said.
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