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Obama Turns Up Heat on Trade Legislation

  • Jim Randle

FILE - Container ships are seen docked at the Port of Los Angeles, Feb. 23, 2015.

FILE - Container ships are seen docked at the Port of Los Angeles, Feb. 23, 2015.

The Obama administration is pressing hard to win approval of controversial trade legislation in Congress, as a series of news reports say the Trade Promotion Authority (TPA) bill is in trouble. White House spokesman Josh Earnest said there is still “important work to be done” on this issue.

The effort includes a gathering of dozens of moderate Democrats at the White House, a briefing by a top economic official for the press, and a campaign-style trip by Obama to a major exporter on the West Coast.

House Speaker John Boehner, a Republican, says his party strongly supports trade and urged Obama to “step up his game” in terms of persuading skeptical Democrats to vote for trade legislation.

The first issue is Trade Promotion Authority which is sometimes called “Fast Track.” TPA is strongly opposed by many of Obama’s usual allies in the labor and environmental movements and a number of his fellow Democrats in Congress.

The TPA would set rules for congressional consideration of other trade agreements with Pacific nations and the European Union. TPA would allow members of Congress to approve or reject proposed trade deals, but not permit them to make changes.

TPA supporters say U.S. trading partners are not going to make their best offer in negotiations if they expect the U.S. Congress to pick apart the measure.

TPA opponents say Congress should not surrender authority to another branch of government. They also criticize the proposed agreements that would be facilitated by the TPA, the Trans Pacific Partnership and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership. Critics argue that the TPP, T-TIP and previous trade deals like NAFTA (The North American Free Trade Agreement) do too little to protect U.S. workers and the environment, and in some cases, give too much legal clout to foreign companies.

But White House Spokesman Earnest says the new agreements are an improvement over NAFTA because they include “enforceable” provisions to protect labor and the environment. And since NAFTA member-nations Canada and Mexico would be part of the new deal, it is a chance to redress problems with the prior deal.

Earnest says Obama believes that raising labor and environmental standards in nations that trade with the United States will "level the playing field” for U.S. firms. That is because when U.S. competitors have to go to the trouble and expense of meeting these standards, American firms that have to meet similar standards will no longer be at a competitive disadvantage.

The leading Democrat in the House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, said trade deals might get more votes if there were some “accommodations” to meet the concerns of critics.

She said the current proposal offers far too little money for a program that retrains workers displaced by trade deals for new jobs in the future.

Pelosi told journalists that, so far, she does not see any “big movement” toward support among her fellow Democrats.