POLITICS
01/08/2015 04:09 pm ET Updated Jan 08, 2015

Democrats Slam Obama Over Secretive Trade Deals, Say He Needs Economics 'Refresher'

ASSOCIATED PRESS

WASHINGTON -- House Democrats took President Barack Obama to task on Thursday for urging Congress to grant him the authority to fast-track huge international trade deals with little transparency.

"The president's policy is not exactly beloved within the Democratic caucus; we're very unhappy with it," Rep. Alan Grayson (D-Fla.) told HuffPost outside of a lively Capitol Hill press conference composed of lawmakers, environmentalists and labor advocates opposing fast-track authority.

Under authority that expired years ago, the president was allowed to "fast-track" trade deals with little input from lawmakers, who could only vote yea or nay on the final deal. Obama has since shown interest in reviving this authority, urging Congress to back fast-track legislation. With this authority, the president could quickly close the Trans-Pacific Partnership, an aggressive and controversial trade deal he is pursuing with countries in Asia and the Pacific region.

On Wednesday, new Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) promised to grant this authority to Obama in the new Republican-controlled Congress. "I’m happy the president has now become a born-again free trader. It’s high time," McConnell said.

But some Democrats fear that authority will lead to unsavory trade deals that could cost their constituents jobs.

On Thursday, Rep. Janice Hahn (D-Calif.) acknowledged that people are looking for the president to "extend olive branches to this Republican-controlled Congress," and said that might be overriding some of his efforts to stick to policies that he knows his base appreciates.

But she said, "For us to get side-tracked by 'fast-track' is really not the message that we should be putting forth in terms of trade, the economy and jobs," and added that this "gives Democrats a chance to distinguish why we're different."

Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) told HuffPost, "I'm hoping we can take this off the table," but noted, "I think the president wants this from what we know today, so we're trying to say that Congress [should] have some say in this."

Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.) noted the president "has been consistently committed to this fast-track; we've been consistently opposed." He added, "I think the American people are going to watch this one really closely. I would hope he reassesses."

During her weekly press briefing, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said nobody should expect "to see unanimity all the time on the part of Democrats," including on issues like trade. The key for many lawmakers, she said, is that the administration craft trade deals in a transparent way and in consultation with lawmakers.

Meanwhile, the White House is seeking to quell concerns from Democrats. On Wednesday, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said Democrats should have faith that Obama won't sign off on trade agreements that hurt American workers. He pointed to the 2011 South Korea free trade agreement as a deal done right, given that the U.S. auto industry has gotten stronger in the years since.

"I think it's a pretty good indication that the president's track record is strong when it comes to reaching the kinds of trade agreements that are in the best interests of American businesses," Earnest said.

But some of his base remains skeptical. Grayson said the president "has an outdated view of how our economy works" and is relying upon the writings of David Ricardo, an economist 200 years ago "who was living in a world where you'd exchange clothing for chickens. The world has changed."

"The president needs to go back to his college economics course and maybe take a refresher," he added.

UPDATE: 5:15 p.m. -- An Office of the United States Trade Representative spokesperson sent HuffPost the following statement: “Our trade agenda is about supporting jobs through expanding Made in America exports. TPP will be the most progressive trade agreement in history, breaking new ground on labor and environmental protections. We are going to be making that case to Congress and the American people.”

HuffPost

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