Democrats resist Obama appeal on trade

…as they face fierce unions and harsh memories of NAFTA.

June 4, 2015

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama’s make-or-break push for expanded trade is meeting stiff resistance from fellow Democrats in the House, the very lawmakers who helped him claim crucial wins on health care and other issues.

With a House of Representatives vote coming as early as next week, these Democrats note that labour unions are running hard-hitting ads against those supporting the president’s trade agenda. And many of their constituents, they say, harbour bitter memories of the 1995 North America Free Trade Agreement.

Republicans historically support free trade. Some Democrats say Republicans alone should pass the fast-track bill. But House Republican leaders say they might not have enough votes in their party. Both parties need to twist more arms, advocates say.

Obama needs to round up 25 to 30 House Democrats – from a total of 188 – considered necessary to pass a bill that narrowly survived the Senate.

Some House Democrats cite tepid support from local business leaders. Others say the administration seems unwilling to modify the Senate-passed bill in ways to give them enough political cover to support it.

Lawmakers who whole-heartedly support Obama on most issues are accepting his phone calls and invitations to the White House, and still saying “no” on trade.

“My district took a severe beating as a result of NAFTA,” said Congressman G.K. Butterfield, who chairs the Congressional Black Caucus. “We lost thousands of jobs that were exported to other countries. And my constituents still remember that.”

Fast-track authority would let Obama present Congress with proposed trade agreements that it could ratify or reject, but not change. If he obtains it, Obama hopes to advance the long-negotiated Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP. Mexico and Canada, parties to NAFTA, are among the 12 countries in the pending pact.

Obama says US producers must gain better access to world markets. He told Public Media’s “Marketplace” radio show that complaints about NAFTA are outdated.

“You can’t fight the last war,” the president said, and nothing can stop low-wage jobs from continuing to migrate to poor countries. However, he said, “if we’ve got potentially hundreds of millions of workers who are now subject to international labour standards that weren’t there before, and now, when we’re working with them – even if they’re not enforcing those standards 100% – we’ve got enough leverage to start raising those standards, that is good for us.”

Such assurances haven’t persuaded House Democrats such as David Price of North Carolina. He said he’s frustrated that the administration seems reluctant to tweak the fast-track bill in ways that would help Democrats support it and defend their decision before labour unions, a crucial party constituency. “The administration and the Republican leadership need to listen to people like me,” Price said, because it could determine fast track’s fate.

Price said he has asked for language to deal with “currency manipulation” by China and other countries, “even if it’s aspirational” instead of detailed and immediate.

China is not a party to the TPP, but Obama says it might join later. Critics say China keeps its currency artificially low, which makes Chinese exports more affordable to foreign buyers.

House Speaker John Boehner, told Fox News’ Brian Kilmeade: “We’ve got some Republicans who don’t trust the president to do anything and don’t want to give him any authority at all for anything, and I understand their concerns. This isn’t about the president, frankly, it’s about the country.”

Butterfield predicts a nail-biting finish on fast track. “I think it will pass or fail by one or two votes,” he said.

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