WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama’s bid for a new trade deal didn’t get easier Tuesday when the House’s top Democrat said her caucus embraces a dozen demands that may be tough to meet.
House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi has always walked a careful line on trade. She is close to many liberals who strongly oppose new trade pacts. But she often talks of finding “a path to yes,” and notes that John F. Kennedy called Democrats “the party of free trade.”
After House Democrats privately discussed trade Tuesday, a reporter asked Pelosi if the caucus backs 12 proposals, or demands, issued earlier by Rep. Sander Levin of Michigan, who has challenged the administration on several fronts.
“Generally, I would say yes,” Pelosi said. Some Democrats will have other questions, she said, but Levin’s eight-page list is “a solid block of concerns that members have.”
The more tightly Pelosi links herself to Levin on trade, the more worrisome it is for those seeking a new 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP. Those supporters include Obama and many business groups and Republicans that historically support free-trade agreements.
Opposing them are numerous labour unions, environmental groups, liberals and scores of House Democrats. They say free-trade agreements hurt U.S. jobs and enable foreign countries to abuse workers and the environment.
After years of negotiations with Japan, Canada and other Pacific-rim nations, Obama’s team hopes to win congressional approval for the deal this year. First, the administration will seek “fast-track” approval, or “trade promotion authority.” Such authority, which previous presidents have enjoyed, allows Congress to approve or reject — but not amend — major trade proposals.
The White House has been pushing back against critics, reaching out to some traditional foes of such agreements to make its case. On Monday, White House political director David Simas addressed liberal groups in a teleconference call. He said new trade deals would help American workers by lowering overseas trade barriers and by ensuring that labour and environmental standards are enforced.
“This is not Congress giving up its authority,” Simas said about granting Obama trade promotion authority. “It’s Congress very narrowly constraining and dictating the terms of what an administration must do going forward when they negotiate trade deals.”
Levin is the top Democrat on the House Ways and Means Committee, which handles trade bills. In January he issued a 12-point “resolution of the major outstanding issues” for TPP. He said his support hinges on their adoption.
The proposals touch almost every major issue involving trade, often in depth.
Regarding access to agriculture markets, Levin says “the TPP agreement should eliminate tariffs and other charges by a date certain on virtually all products exported by the United States that decrease market opportunities” for U.S. exports.
Levin suggests a tit-for-tat response to Japan’s barriers to importing U.S. autos. The United States, he said, “should maintain tariffs on imports of comparable products from that TPP country for a period of time sufficient to ensure that the TPP country has opened its market to United States exports of the relevant product.”
Levin also says the Trans-Pacific pact must combat currency manipulation, protect workers’ rights to join labour unions, and promote “co-operative efforts to address climate change.”
Pro-trade activists had mixed reactions to Pelosi’s remarks Tuesday. Some said they wished she had kept more distance from Levin’s list.
Others said Pelosi was simply reflecting concerns of her fellow Democrats, and they pointed to more upbeat comments she made at the same news conference.
“I see this discussion as an opportunity for our country, in a bipartisan way, to think in new and fresh and entrepreneurial ways about how we deal with trade,” Pelosi said.
“I’m excited about what the possibilities are,” she said. “I see great opportunity for bipartisan co-operation. I hope that the administration will be receptive to how we see a better path to yes.”
Associated Press writer Jim Kuhnhenn contributed to this article.