Top Senate Democrat on Trade Defends Agreement

Top Senate Democrat on Trade Defends Agreement
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Ron Wyden, the top Democrat on the Senate finance committee, defended the compromise he reached this week with his Republican counterparts over trade agreements, saying that it is much improved from Clinton-era oversight despite serious objections raised by members of his party.

Wyden, committee Chairman Orrin Hatch and House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Paul Ryan reached a deal Thursday on trade promotion authority, also known as fast-track authority, which would give lawmakers the power to vote on trade agreements – such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership that’s been in negotiations for years – but would not give Congress the right to amend the agreements. Notably absent in shaping the legislation was Rep. Sandy Levin, the ranking Democrat on the Ways and Means Committee, who opposes the authority.

The deal creates an odd coupling, with President Obama and a significant number of congressional Republicans supporting fast-track authority against significant opposition from many Democrats. When Obama mentioned trade during his January State of the Union address, the Republican side of the chamber gave him a standing ovation, while most Democrats stayed in their seats.

Wyden, speaking at a breakfast Friday morning hosted by the Christian Science Monitor, said the central question he’s been asked by constituents skeptical of the deal is how it would differ from trade oversight in the 1990s. Wyden said that in the past, lawmakers and citizens have felt in the dark about trade agreements.

“With this proposal, those days are over,” he said. The legislation would require trade agreements to be open for public comment for 60 days before the president signs them, and for as long as four months before Congress votes. He added that another difference is the power Congress has to “put the brakes on a bad trade agreement.”

He acknowledged some of the points opponents have made, but said the “unprecedented transparency” under new agreement would be a significant improvement.

“We’re talking about people having some sense of what the general debate is all about and what the issues are,” he said. “If you believe strongly in trade, as I do, you shouldn’t be in favor of all this excessive secrecy because the only thing that excessive secrecy accomplishes is to make people more cynical about the whole process, because what is everybody hiding?”

Though President Obama has made fast-track authority and the Trans-Pacific Partnership key goals for the last two years of his presidency, getting the deals through Congress will require a fight. Wyden wouldn’t comment Friday on how many Democrats on the finance committee would likely support the measure, but predicted there will be a “strong vote” in favor of the authority.

“I think everyone understands that there is a long, long way to go after this,” he said.

Levin, however, who is the key House Democrat regarding these matters, released a statement Thursday criticizing the legislation and saying it makes it harder to find agreement on the Trans-Pacific Partnership – a 12-country deal that would trump the North Atlantic Free Trade Agreement passed under Bill Clinton.

“Instead of pressing [United States trade representative] to get a better agreement or signaling to our negotiating partners that Congress will only accept a strong agreement, the Hatch-Wyden-Ryan TPA puts Congress in the back seat and greases the skids for an up-or-down vote after the fact,” Levin said. “Real Congressional power is not at the end of the process, it is right now when the critical outstanding issues are being negotiated.”

Obama, speaking at a news conference Friday, emphasized that the legislation is not a trade agreement, but rather a framework to deal with future agreements. He said there are significant requirements for labor, environmental and human rights provisions, and called it “the most far-reaching and progressive trade promotion authority that’s gone through Congress.”

He added that while “the politics around trade has always been tough,” he’ll be able to show that the Trans-Pacific Partnership is “good for not just American businesses but American workers, and it’s good for our economy.”

The Senate Finance Committee held a hearing on trade policy Thursday, and Hatch said earlier this week that he hopes they can hold a mark-up of the fast-track legislation as soon as next week.

On Friday, Wyden was asked about Democratic opposition to the agreement and what he would say to fellow party members to get them on board.

“First words out of my mouth when I talk to a colleague who’s a Democrat will be here are the differences in policy between now and the 1990s,” Wyden said. “I’ll say I think opponents have made that case. They have made that case that trade policy needs a big-time upgrade.”

James Arkin is a congressional reporter for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @JamesArkin.

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