Accompanied by howls of outrage from President Barack Obama’s traditional political allies, a bill to grant special legislative status to a secretive trade agreement, supported by both the president and the Congressional Republicans with whom he has sparred for his entire tenure in the White House, is expected to come to the floor of both Houses of Congress in coming weeks.
The announcement of a deal struck between the heads of the House and Senate tax-writing committees sets up a fascinating dynamic in Congress, where normal battle lines will no longer apply. President Obama will apparently be on the same side as Republicans who have actively tried to prevent him from realizing his presidential ambitions.
The bill would grant the president what’s known as Trade Promotion Authority, which allows his administration to negotiate an international trade agreement with the understanding that it will receive a simple up-or-down vote in Congress. The TPA would apply to the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade agreement that has been under negotiation between the U.S. and 11 other Pacific nations, for more than five years.
One of the problems people have with the TPP is that, to put it simply, very few people know what’s in it. The negotiations over the deal are literally classified as secret by the U.S. government.
Another problem involves the people who do know what’s in it. In addition to U.S. government negotiators, people in on the details of the talks include representatives of the various industries whose products would be affected by the agreement. That might not be an issue except that people representing labor, environmental, and human rights groups are effectively excluded.
The deal, which will cover everything from agricultural products to pharmaceuticals, has attracted criticism from a broad range of traditionally Democratic constituencies.
“Across the country, Americans of all walks of life have made their opinions on fast-track and the Trans-Pacific Partnership clear to their members of Congress: Either stand with working Americans and help stop the dangerous TPP, or give increased and unprecedented powers to giant corporations at the expense of working people,” said Anna Galland, executive director of MoveOn.org Civic Action.
“The Trans-Pacific Partnership is another corporate-backed agreement that is the latest in a series of failed trade policies which have cost us millions of decent-paying jobs, pushed down wages for American workers and led to the decline of our middle class,” said Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-VT). “We want American companies to create decent-paying jobs in America, not just in low-wage countries like Vietnam, Malaysia or China. The TPP must be defeated.”
One problem for opponents of the bill is that, because of the extreme secrecy under which it is being negotiated, they don’t have a lot of specifics to point to. That’s something the president tried to exploit in a statement Thursday, which boiled down to a request that the American people just trust him.
“My top priority in any trade negotiation is expanding opportunity for hardworking Americans," President Obama said in a statement Thursday. “It’s no secret that past trade deals haven’t always lived up to their promise, and that’s why I will only sign my name to an agreement that helps ordinary Americans get ahead. At the same time, at a moment when 95 percent of our potential customers live outside our borders, we must make sure that we, and not countries like China, are writing the rules for the global economy.”
The political fight over whether to give the president fast-track authority promises to be one of the most interesting political battles of the Obama presidency. However, while not preordained, the outcome seems likely to favor the White House.
The Senate, where minority Democrats have their best chance of shutting down legislation they dislike, is likely to pass the bill, because enough of them will join Republicans in supporting the bill to overcome a filibuster by Democrats opposed to the deal. Sen. Ron Wyden, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee, was a key participant in drafting the bill, and reportedly withheld his support until a number of provisions he required were put in place.
Among other things, Wyden’s requirements reportedly include agreements that the administration will keep the deal within certain parameters with regard to transparency, human rights, and environmental protection.
The bill also creates a mechanism under which 40 percent of the U.S. Senate could kill the deal via filibuster if the administration does not meet the bill’s requirements.
Wyden’s support, along with what amounts to a poison pill amendment in the Senate means the bill will likely pass there. In the House, however, things are far more complicated. Most Republicans are in favor of the bill, but a significant minority oppose it, not because they object to trade agreements in general, but because they dislike the idea of giving President Obama and his administration so much latitude to determine what kind of deal will come before Congress.
House Majority Leader John Boehner, at one point, estimated that he would need at least 50 Democratic votes to get a TPA measure through the House. As of Thursday evening, Democratic Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-MD) had been notably silent with regard to their position on the bill.
And there won’t be a lot of help from influential Democrats with authority over the policy issues being negotiated.
Rep. Sandy Levin (D-MI), the ranking Democrat on the House Ways and Means Committee, was notably absent from the negotiations over the deal, and declined to offer his support.
“Unfortunately, the Hatch-Wyden-Ryan Trade Promotion Authority does not move us toward a stronger TPP agreement that will garner broad, bipartisan support in Congress,” Rep. Levin said in a statement. “TPP is not where it needs to be right now, and [this bill] does nothing to change that.
By contrast, Republican leaders, including House Speaker john Boehner (R-OH) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, issued strongly worded messages of support.
The odds currently seem to be well in favor of passage of the TPA bill, which would make eventual agreement to the entire TPP agreement more likely. From a political perspective, though, the most interesting element of this debate might be its eventual impact on the cohesiveness of the Democratic Party.
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