Susan Walsh / AP Photo

Democratic brawl over Pacific trade deal escalates ahead of Senate vote

Obama trades barbs with liberal critics of Trans-Pacific Partnership in lead-up to congressional fight

WASHINGTON —The barbs flying between President Barack Obama and liberals in his party who oppose the controversial Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact got sharper and more personal this week, as the Senate prepares an initial vote on giving him authority to speed up passage of the deal.

He has made passing the TPP — a 12-country trade agreement that includes several nations on the Pacific — a cornerstone of his second-term agenda. He has undertaken an unusually sustained and aggressive campaign to win over the trade deal’s skeptics, traveling the country and personally lobbying lawmakers in the face of open mutiny from members of his party and progressive groups that are usually his reliable allies.

Opponents of the TPP, among them labor unions, environmental groups and prominent Democratic lawmakers, argue that the pact amounts to a corporate giveaway that would override U.S. financial and environmental regulations and pad the bottom lines of businesses while doing little to protect American workers and wages.

“This deal would give protections to international corporations that are not available to United States environmental and labor groups,” Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., said in February. “Multinational corporations are increasingly realizing this is an opportunity to gut U.S. regulations they don’t like.”

Obama has spent the past few days deflecting those attacks and hitting back against his critics.

“The truth of the matter is that Elizabeth is, you know, a politician like everybody else,” he said in an interview with Yahoo News on Friday, referring to Warren. “And you know, she’s got a voice that she wants to get out there. And I understand that. And on most issues, she and I deeply agree. On this one, though, her arguments don’t stand the test of fact and scrutiny.”

The president gave a similarly robust defense of the Trans-Pacific Partnership in a high-profile speech at Nike’s headquarters in Oregon on Friday. Speaking on the suburban campus of the company, a multinational that does the majority of its manufacturing in Vietnam and stands to benefit from tariff relief under the TPP, he insisted that the agreement is a key part of “middle-class economics,” as well as critical for national security in the Pacific region as the U.S. aims to provide an economic counterweight to China.

“On trade, I actually think some of my dearest friends are wrong. They’re just wrong,” Obama said. “This is the most progressive trade deal in history.”

His administration has been working on the TPP since 2009, with several other nations on the Pacific Rim, as well as Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Mexico, Chile and Peru. A final trade deal would affect about 40 percent of the world’s commerce.

If Congress passes legislation to give the president trade promotion authority, the final agreement will be put on a fast track for approval. The TPP would then require only a majority vote to pass, with lawmakers unable to amend the deal or filibuster a vote on it. The Senate fast-track authority bill scheduled for a vote this week includes an additional provision that allows lawmakers to revoke that authority if Congress decides the agreement doesn’t meet its standards.

Warren, in an interview with The Washington Post, said even that safety valve for the deal wasn’t good enough. “The whole point about fast track is to grease the skids so that 51 votes will get it through,” she said. “It takes a majority to get rid of [fast track].”

She and others have derided the secrecy surrounding the TPP. Most of the agreement remains classified and unavailable to the public, although some portions have leaked. The White House has argued that keeping it out of public view ensures that negotiators remain on board as the final, sensitive details are worked out. 

“Every single one of the critics saying this is a secret deal or send out emails to their fundraising base that they’re working to stop a secret deal could walk over and see the text of the agreement,” Obama told reporters in April. The text of the deal is available for members of Congress to review.

Warren and other critics don’t accept that argument. “If the president is so confident it’s a good deal, he should declassify the text and let people see it before asking Congress to tie its hands on fixing it,” she said.

The upcoming votes will be a key test of the unusual bipartisan insurgency against the trade deal, an issue that has scrambled the usual political allegiances. The president’s most steadfast allies in support of the TPP are congressional GOP leaders, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker John Boehner.

Arrayed in opposition to the bill are progressives in the Democratic Party, along with some Republicans who say that Obama has already overstepped his executive authority on immigration and other issues and who do not want to grant him additional power on a trade deal.

That could prove an especially potent force in the House, where a strong contingent of progressive House members could team up with tea party members to tank the bill.

TPP opponents say derailing the fast-track legislation is their last chance to pressure the Obama administration to renegotiate provisions of the deal that they find objectionable, including what they say are lax environmental and labor standards and a special tribunal that would be formed to settle disputes between corporations and foreign governments.

“If fast track is defeated, then I think the administration must rethink this and go back and get the right provisions,” said Thea Lee, the deputy chief of staff of the AFL-CIO, a labor organization that has been one of the most strident TPP opponents. “The entire Democratic base is telling the administration that they’ve failed on this one.”

The Senate’s vote could come as early as Tuesday, although Senate Democrats have said they would throw up procedural hurdles to slow the process.

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