Brendan Smialowski / AFP / Getty Images

Liberal rebellion over trade pact reflects wider fissure among Democrats

After years in which progressives say corporate interests have held sway, critics said the TPP is a tipping point

WASHINGTON — The latest turn in the pitched legislative battle over trade had the Senate moving forward on a bill that would give President Barack Obama the authority to accelerate the passage of the controversial Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), reversing course just days after the measure was blocked by Democratic lawmakers.

But the broad progressive coalition that has united to openly defy a Democratic president on a signature element of his economic agenda say it isn’t backing down.

Even as odds for passage of a bill to give Obama fast-track authority are looking better in the Senate, where a number of Democrats who support the TPP have been mollified by a concurrent bill that takes up the issue of currency manipulation, opposition in the House has mounted among both progressive Democrats and conservative Republicans who do not want to grant Obama additional powers.

A final vote on the bill in the Senate could come as early as next week, before the legislation moves on to the House, where it is believed to be on much shakier ground. 

If Congress gives Obama trade promotion authority (TPA), the final Pacific pact would be subjected to an up-or-down vote, with members unable to submit amendments or filibuster.

Although liberal TPP opponents say they object first and foremost to the scale and contents of the 12-country agreement — provisions of which they say would undercut U.S. regulations and harm workers and wages — they also see the battle around the trade deal as emblematic of the wider battle within the Democratic Party between its traditional business elements and a resurgent populist wing. The TPP, whose text is classified and available only to members of Congress and others with a security clearance, has the potential to touch on a number of different policy arenas, from rules for foreign investment to environmental protections to intellectual property rights. 

After years in which environmentalists, labor unions and good-government groups have felt that corporate interests have run roughshod over public policy, critics said the TPP is another flashpoint that progessives are rallying around.

“[Hillary] Clinton and Obama are good Democrats who want to do a lot of good liberal things, but on economic policy, they have been captured by Wall Street,” said Roger Hickey, a co-director of the progressive Campaign for America’s Future. “They are so aligned with corporate America and multinational corporations that they can’t even think of opposing trade treaties, even though the base of the Democratic base is rebelling against them. It’s an attempt by the base of the Democratic Party to educate the establishment that we’ve got to have a new approach.”

Obama has taken an unusually aggressive approach to securing the passage of the TPP, personally lobbying lawmakers, lobbing pointed criticism at members of his party and traveling the country to mount a full-throated defense of the agreement. Clinton, since declaring her presidential candidacy, has avoided taking a firm position on the TPP, saying only that any palatable agreement needs to “produce jobs and raise wages.”

Michael Podhorzer, the political director of the AFL-CIO, said in the last few decades, the world has learned to distrust assurances that what will be good for corporations will also benefit workers.

“Twenty or 30 years ago, before it was fully experienced, there was less resistance around the world to these neoliberal policies,” he said. “But now after the fruit of those policies, which is stagnating and declining wages, have been seen around the world, I think there’s that much more energy around opposing these kinds of deals.”

For others, frustration has mounted with Obama for teaming up with congressional Republicans to speed up a pro-business agenda item as other progressive priorities, from raising the minimum wage to increasing spending for infrastructure, have languished.

“It’s bewildering to me that the president chooses to lash out at Democrats, be friendly with [House] Speaker [John] Boehner and [Senate] Majority Leader [Mitch] McConnell and focus on an agreement that will likely make things more difficult for middle-class Americans,” said Scott Paul, the president of the Alliance of American Manufacturing. “I wonder why we don’t see the same sort of forcefulness on infrastructure, for example. That’s baffling to me.”

Tefere Gebre, the executive vice president of the AFL-CIO, made a similar argument at a protest against the TPP last month, upbraiding an accelerated process for trade agreements when there is not a similar mechanism in place for policies that directly benefit workers.

“We can’t raise the minimum wage in this country to $10.10 because it takes 60 votes [in the Senate]. We can’t get a responsible way to insure the long-term unemployed because it takes 60 votes,” he said. “But they are saying with a simple vote, with a simple majority, they want to pass the largest trade agreement this country has ever seen or this world has ever seen?”

Obama and his trade allies say the characterization of the agreement as a corporate giveaway is a mischaracterization, arguing that the pact stands to benefit the U.S. economy as a whole by increasing market access in other countries for American goods.

Francisco Sanchez, a former undersecretary of commerce of international trade in the Obama administration, said that as big corporations like General Electric, Nike and Microsoft would prosper from the pact, so would small businesses that are part of their supply chains. 

“It does benefit corporations. It also benefits small businesses,” he said. “This is not about giving anything away. It’s about enhancing opportunities,” he said. “There’s a lot of ways to benefit the American worker, and one of them is supporting economic growth, in addition to things like passing health care.”

The Progressive Coalition for American Jobs, a group that was recently formed to make the Democratic case for the trade deal and is closely allied with the Obama administration, argues that the president’s trade push is pragmatic, given a Republican-controlled Congress, and does not detract from his progressive legacy in other areas.  

“[Obama] recognizes this is a substantial issue that can have a meaningful impact going forward,” said Chris Wyant, the group’s executive director. “You have to understand where are the wins you can get. There are some issues there’s no path forward. [But] it’s clear here, he can get the support to pass TPA/TPP.”

Related News

Find Al Jazeera America on your TV

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter


Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter