WASHINGTON (AP) — President Barack Obama appealed Tuesday to skeptical members of the Congressional Black Caucus to give him "fast track" authority to negotiate trade deals. Members told him they want assurances that future trade agreements provide jobs for U.S. workers.
The Democratic lawmakers who attended a 90-minute White House meeting said Obama made a case for trade, singling out current negotiations with Asia and Pacific Rim countries. He stressed that without a deal with Asia, China could get an economic upper hand in the region, participants said.
In a statement, the White House said his trade agenda would support economic growth "by opening markets, enforcing high-standards in our agreements, and leveling the playing field for our workers."
Obama is seeking so-called trade promotion authority, which would give Congress the opportunity only to approve or reject, not change, trade deals negotiated by the administration. Presidents from both parties have typically had to rely on Republicans for support on trade and Obama faces a challenge securing Democratic votes.
Democrats and their allies in labor and the environmental movement blame past trade agreements for lost jobs and weak international environmental standards.
"He acknowledged that there have been some problems in the past with some trade agreements but believes this trade agreement will be infinitely better in terms of safeguards," said Rep. Emanuel Cleaver of Missouri. "The bottom line is what we have to make a decision on is how much trust and confidence we have in the president because there is nothing that we're going to know until it's been negotiated."
"He made the case," said Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey. "There are a lot of us who are still working through it and looking forward to diving deeper into it."
The White House statement said Obama shared concern with Black Caucus members over the rate of unemployment among African Americans, which was 10.3 percent in January, compared to 5.7 percent for the overall population.
Black Caucus Chairman G.K. Butterfield, a North Carolina Democrat, said the lawmakers and Obama discussed targeted spending in counties with persistently high poverty rates; initiatives that would reach black Americans who are not benefiting from the economic recovery; and changes in the criminal justice system.
"We had a very robust conversation about criminal justice reform, not only about police misconduct, but also about prosecutorial misconduct," Butterfield said. He said members also raised the need to reduce incarceration in the United States.
Obama stressed the need to improve trust between local communities and law enforcement, the White House said.