'Let's Just Do It:' Trade Fight Intensifies Between Obama and Warren

Matt Vespa
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Posted: May 11, 2015 6:30 PM
'Let's Just Do It:' Trade Fight Intensifies Between Obama and Warren

The war between President Obama and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) was kicked up a notch last week, when the president said, “Elizabeth is, you know, a politician like everyone else.” Matt Bai at Yahoo! Politics noted how the president has often deployed evasive maneuvers whenever it came to party infighting. Moreover, Bai noted it was somewhat odd seeing that Obama was a) frustrated with his party’s intransigence on trade b) sort of shaking off the “reluctant campaigner” that some on the left accuse him of being on red-meat liberal policy issues. Yet, another reason Obama is so aggressive on this deal–besides being for it–is that it presents one last time he can get something significant through Congress–ironically–on the backs of Republicans. For Obama, it’s a mixture of legacy building and desperately fighting for something he believes in, though it has caused a significant rift within his own party. Sen. Warren’s latest line of attack against the Trans-Pacific Partnership is that is could be used to gut the Dodd-Frank financial regulations (via Matt Bai):

“She’s absolutely wrong,” Barack Obama said, before I could even get the question out of my mouth.

He was talking about Elizabeth Warren, the Massachusetts senator and populist crusader whom Obama helped elevate to national prominence. Warren generally reserves her more acid critiques for Republicans and Wall Street, but in recent weeks she’s been leading a vocal coalition of leftist groups and lawmakers who oppose the president’s free-trade pact with 12 Asian countries.

This past week, as I had just reminded Obama, Warren launched her heaviest torpedo yet against the trade deal, alleging that some future president might use it as an excuse to undo the reregulation of Wall Street that Obama signed into law in 2010. In fact, as the White House quickly pointed out, language in the pact would expressly prevent that unless Congress voted to allow it.

“The truth of the matter is that Elizabeth is, you know, a politician like everybody else,” he said. “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.”

Warren and other critics of the Asian trade pact have seized on a series of complaints in their efforts to stop Congress from giving Obama so-called fast-track authority, which would enable him to put the final deal before Congress on an up-or-down vote, without endless amendments. (Obama, by the way, would be the first president in decades to be denied that authority — and by lawmakers in his own party, no less.) Some of these complaints are more persuasive than others.

Opponents have charged that the deal is being negotiated secretly and without their input. (Obama points out that anyone with access to the Internet will have 60 days to scrutinize the deal before he even signs it and sends it on to Congress, which would then begin its own period of evaluation, so it’s not like anyone is going to wake up and find that Congress just sold the Lincoln Memorial to Taiwan.)

They see the deal as too protective of multinational corporations, like the way it extends patents for pharmaceutical companies, or the way it allows corporations with complaints to bring their disputes to special arbitrators, rather than to the courts. (Obama makes the point that America is party to 50 such agreements already and has never been successfully sued.) They’re furious that the deal would do nothing to end China’s currency manipulation, which contributes to America’s hurtful trade imbalance. (Obama argues that including the currency issue in this trade pact, rather than pursuing it separately, might expose our own Federal Reserve to lawsuits from other countries.)

To claims that more free trade means, inevitably, more job losses, Obama has vowed — about twice every hour, it seems — that the Trans-Pacific Partnership will have the most stringent labor and environmental standards of any trade deal in history. He says it will generate an extra $123 billion in American exports annually, along with $77 billion more in economic growth.

Granted, scrutiny does play a role in this deal. It’s a huge trade agreement that involves 40 percent of the world’s GDP. A vote on giving the president fast-track track authority on the TPP is scheduled this week. Sen. Warren took to the op-ed pages of the Washington Post to reiterate her firm opposition to this agreement. Also, while every Republican running for president in 2016 has supported the TPP, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee placed himself with the Warren camp when he brought up the trade agreement during his 2016 announcement last week:

Fast-track means that nobody’s paying attention. The last time we really fast-tracked something was Obamacare,” said Huckabee. “Why do we ever want to again believe that the government fast-tracking something without thoroughly understanding the implications is the best way to go?”

Huckabee’s populist tone echoed the speech he made announcing his candidacy Tuesday in his (and Bill Clinton’s) hometown of Hope, Arkansas.

He told the crowd that he opposed trade agreements that push wages “lower than the Dead Sea” and said, “I never have been and won’t be the favorite candidate of those in the Washington to Wall Street corridor of power.”

Over 150 House Democrats have signed a letter opposing the TPP, some publications, like the Economist, have warned that such agreements don’t maximize its economic output due to them being hamstrung by labor and environmental provisions. Also, we have retiring Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV), who has said he’s never supported a trade agreement in his 33-year career in public–and doesn’t plan to start supporting them now. He’s a guaranteed “hell no” vote on fast-track.

Republicans need Democrats to cross over, but there are a few Republican senators who might balk on the fast-track vote. Theoretically, the GOP needs six Democratic votes, but Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL) and Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) voted against fast-track authority when Bush was president; Sen. Richard Burr (R-NC) voted against the current proposal when it was in committee citing detrimental economic effects on his state’s textile industry. Also, Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV) voted against the Bush’s fast-track authority measure when she was in the House. Nevertheless, Bush was able to cobble the votes–the House was a squeaker though–and a series of new free trade agreements soon followed.

Last week, the president went to the headquarters of Nike to promote the TPP–a move that is anathema to the die-hard progressive wing of his party. Nike promises to create 10,000 manufacturing jobs if this deal is pushed through:

President Barack Obama went to Nike headquarters on Friday to make the hard sell on the trans-Pacific trade deal, even uttering the words, “Let’s just do it.”

Obama delivered a full-throated defense of the Trans-Pacific Partnership currently under negotiation among a dozen countries, and hit back at claims such a deal would result in a bleeding of jobs overseas.

He acknowledged criticism from fellow Democrats, but said some of his closest friends are “wrong.”

“I’ve run my last election, and the only reason I do something is because I think it’s good for the American workers and the American people and the American economy,” Obama said.

Nike pledged earlier Friday that it would create 10,000 jobs over the next decade if the trade deal passes, a small part of the global company’s more than 1 million contract factory workers, most of which are based in Asian countries.

Critics viewed this as window dressing, yet New Balance–the counterpoint to Nike since they make most of their shoes in America–dropped its opposition to the TPP since they would benefit from the removal on tariffs from the supplies they import to make shoes. Around 75 percent of New Balance’s materials are imported. Alas, the interconnectivity of free trade at work, though I’m sure labor rights activists are still unnerved by this move (via CNN):

The [Nike] trip puts Obama in position to argue, if implicitly, that it's OK to leave low-skilled manufacturing jobs behind in order to add higher-paying jobs of the future -- like Nike's U.S.-based designers, product engineers, marketers and more.

The original foil for Obama's trade deal was New Balance, the Boston-based company that employs hundreds of workers throughout New England, including more than 700 in manufacturing jobs in Maine. Early in the negotiations, the company stood alone in its industry in highlighting the damage the deal could do to its U.S. workers.

But Obama's administration has convinced New Balance -- which maneuvered behind the scenes to work some extra protections into the negotiations -- to put its opposition on hold.

That's in part because of one of the industry's dirty secrets: Even its model citizen, New Balance, imports 75% of its product from overseas, and it stands to gain from the axed tariffs as well.

Still, the cobbling of votes continues, with many Democrats being either undecided or position unknown on fast-track as of last week:

Reid also says fast-track should not move without a promise from Republicans to move Trade Adjustment Assistance, which helps workers displaced by increased trade; a customs enforcement bill; and the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), which gives trade preferences to developing nations.

...

Obama met Wednesday [May 6] with Sens. Chris Coons (Del.), Dianne Feinstein (Calif.), Tim Kaine (Va.), Patty Murray (Wash.), Jeanne Shaheen (N.H.) and Ron Wyden (Ore.) at the White House, and urged them to back his trade agenda.

Vice President Biden followed up by placing calls on Thursday to senators.

Feinstein said Obama laid out a compelling case for supporting fast-track.

“It was a good lengthy discussion and a number of different aspects of this came out. I saw things that I didn’t see before,” she said.

Still, it’s clear Obama could have his work cut out for him. Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), who supports fast-track authority, said he should be marked down as “undecided” on the question of whether the Senate should proceed to TPA.

He and Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), who co-authored the fast-track bill, said they would await more input from colleagues before deciding how to vote on the motion to proceed.

Senate Republican leaders and White House officials don’t want to leave fast-track twisting in the wind during the Memorial Day recess, which would give opponents valuable time to wage grassroots campaign to bash it.

They want to use a vote in the Senate to build momentum for what will be an even tougher vote in the House.

Cornyn said the GOP leadership may need votes from as many as 15 Democrats to pass fast-track after the Senate proceeds to it.

“We're not unanimously on our side in support of it. So this is a priority for the president, and so that comes with an obligation for him to work on members of his own party to produce the votes,” he said.

Democratic aides backing Reid argue there’s simply not enough time to move fast-track and the NSA and highway bills by the end of the month. The Senate has two more weeks in session before the Memorial Day recess.