WASHINGTON -- If you didn’t know Sen. Sherrod Brown before, you probably do now.
Brown (D-Ohio) has made a name for himself during the Senate fight over President Barack Obama’s trade agenda, and is raising hell with Republicans, who just want to give Obama what he wants –- yes, you read that right.
Brown doesn’t want Congress to approve legislation that would give Obama expedited, or fast-track authority, to win congressional approval for trade deals like the Trans-Pacific Partnership now being negotiated by the U.S. and 11 Pacific nations. Fast track would prohibit amendments to the trade pacts and only allow up-or-down votes.
Brown may not receive as much attention as Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) is getting in the ongoing fight between Obama's administration and Senate Democrats, but he’s doing everything he can to make drastic changes to the bill that would grant Obama the so-called trade promotion authority.
In an interview with The Huffington Post on Tuesday, Brown laid out his strategy, which is to talk to everyone and push them to support measures that would toughen enforcement of trade laws.
“I’m working with everybody. I met with the number two Republican in the Senate earlier this morning to talk about my Level the Playing Field Act,” Brown said of his proposal to fight back against countries that aren’t playing fair in trade cases. “I’ve got all kinds of Republican sponsors on that. We’ve been successful working across party lines, and we’ve been successful working with those Democrats -- the dozen or so who are for fast track.”
So what's the point, if Brown expects Republicans to ultimately prevail? “Obviously, shine a light,” he said.
“The more the public sees it, the more we shine a light on a trade agreement, that it’s debated in Congress, the less the public likes these trade agreements," he said. "These trade agreements don’t work for our country."
That isn’t stopping Obama. He's putting on a full-court press to get Congress to give him the extra powers.
“It’s shameful if TPA passes, leading to the Trans-Pacific Partnership being agreed to ultimately," Brown said. "It’s shameful if we don’t do what we ought to do for workers.”
As of Tuesday evening, the Senate hadn't voted on more amendments to the TPA bill, though Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) indicated he’d like to cut off debate and take a final vote by Thursday.
Brown is the reason. He stayed on the Senate floor all afternoon on Tuesday, working to get the specific amendments for Democrats.
Brown said Democrats are responsible for getting votes on his amendment “to close the 85-year loophole that allows child labor products into the United States.” And he wants a vote on currency manipulation.
“China clearly has been gaming the currency system, as has Japan -- making sure that those rules are in place,” Brown said. “So all those amendments will be up this week. We’re working to include them in this central TPA fast-track package.”
Don Stewart, spokesman for McConnell, said Tuesday evening that Democrats were blocking all votes on amendments, calling the tactic, “well, something.” A Democratic aide said Brown was at the center of it, working to get a deal from Republicans on a package of amendments that both sides could agree to vote on. Brown canceled his afternoon schedule to do it.
The holdup forced McConnell’s hand Tuesday night, with the Senate leader saying a way forward remained elusive. “Now we’ve got the whole processed stymied because we can’t seem to get agreements for any additional amendments," McConnell said. "I think we all know this is a body that requires some level of cooperation and that just hasn’t been here on this bipartisan bill.”
Brown holds no illusions and expects the Senate “will ultimately pass” fast-track. That's why he has a backup plan -- the House.
“Senators, for whatever reason -- I don’t know if it’s because senators know more CEOs, or senators hang out more rarified air, I don’t know -- but senators always support free trade agreements more than House members,” Brown said. “I don’t think we can defeat it in the Senate. I’m still hopeful in the House.”
House GOP leaders have yet to say if they will take up a customs enforcement bill that bans goods made with child labor, and cracks down on countries that try to make their products cheaper by devaluing their own currencies. It passed the Senate last week, but Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) won’t have to bring it to the floor unless House Democrats refuse to move TPA without voting on it.
“We’re also pushing the House to actually move on the customs bill," Brown said. "So we’re kind of following two tracks on this, to make sure that we can get this in place.”
Brown didn’t mince words: He wants TPA to fail, and he thinks Congress can improve the legislation it is set to vote on this week.
“Ideally, I want TPA to be defeated in the House, because I think even with trade enforcement help for workers, it does more damage passing TPA than the things we want to dress it up with,” Brown said.
McConnell and many of his fellow Republicans argue the opposite, saying a vote for fast-track is one for the middle class.
“The truth is, just about every serious public official knows that eliminating the restrictions that hurt American workers and American goods is good for our country,” McConnell said during remarks on the Senate floor Tuesday, adding that knocking down “unfair trade barriers” in Europe and the Pacific could lead to 1.4 million U.S. jobs.
Brown doesn’t see it that way.
“I don’t like exaggeration, and I won’t quite say it’s a death knell for communities like the one I grew up in, but it heaps one more disaster from globalization on another,” Brown said. “In a place like Mansfield, Ohio, where I grew up, which used to have six or eight major manufacturers and five dozen small manufacturers, most of them are gone. The rest of them, by and large, will be gone, if we don’t take care of worker enforcement on trade law and if we don’t help those workers that lose their jobs.”