Government & Politics

Democrats Trade Blows Over Trade

When Democrats revolt against their dear leader, it's downright entertaining.

Allyne Caan · Apr. 23, 2015

When Republicans disagree with Barack Obama, it’s par for the course; when Democrats revolt against their dear leader, it’s downright entertaining. Obama, who once could do no wrong, now has congressional liberals bucking his bid to push forward a free-trade agreement with 12 Pacific Rim nations via fast-track legislation.

At issue is bipartisan, bicameral trade-promotion authority (TPA) legislation, introduced last week by Senators Orrin Hatch (R-UT) and Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Representative Paul Ryan (R-WI). It would give the president authority, within the parameters of certain rules, to negotiate the Asian trade agreement and present it to Congress for an up-or-down vote, no amendments allowed. Obama claims such authority is necessary to close negotiations on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a 12-nation free-trade deal that some say would be jeopardized if the participating nations think Congress may amend the deal after terms are finalized.

But while Republicans generally favor free trade, many high-powered liberals oppose Obama and are saying “not so fast,” despite the fact that almost every president since FDR has had similar authority. One reason for the opposition could be that the powerful AFL-CIO, which, according to, spent $1 million supporting Democrat candidates in the 2014 election cycle and an equal amount opposing Republicans, has not only come out strongly against TPA but also announced it is suspending campaign contributions to federal candidates in order to fight the White House trade plans.

Obama promised he will sign his name only “to an agreement that helps ordinary Americans get ahead.” But Democrats opposing him aren’t buying it. Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY), for example, said, “All evidence I’ve seen is that this hurts middle-class incomes,” and as a result he “can’t be for it.”

Former Maryland governor and potential Democrat presidential candidate Martin O'Malley also declared his opposition to TPP, writing in an email to supporters, “To me, opposing bad trade deals like TPP is just common sense.”

Democrat presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, who championed an Asian trade pact while secretary of state, hasn’t yet taken a public position on TPP. After all, any AFL-CIO contributions may have to outweigh whatever the Clinton Foundation brought in. Hillary’s positions go to the highest bidder.

Meanwhile, Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-IL) believes only a quarter of Senate Democrats are with the White House. In Durbin’s words, “A fourth, hell no; a fourth, lean yes; and a big group undecided.” At least one of those “hell no’s” comes from Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, who said of supporting the TPA, “You couldn’t find a person to ask this question who feels more negatively about it than I do. … So the answer is not only no, but hell no.”

Also in Reid’s camp is Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, who wrote a scathing opposition to the TPP and fast-track legislation, claiming the government doesn’t want Americans to see what’s in the deal. For Democrats, that’s usually a plus (think ObamaCare), but how the arguments change when Warren tries to fight a trade deal.

Of Warren specifically, and of TPA and TPP’s detractors generally, Obama said they are “wrong on this,” adding that while “some of the information that has been getting thrown out there plays into legitimate fears that Democratic voters have, and progressives have, it’s simply not true. It’s simply not the facts.”

Come on. When have “progressives” ever cared about facts?

The Senate Finance Committee approved TPA Wednesday night by a vote of 20-6, and the bill now moves to the full Senate, where most believe it will pass. On the House side, however, the outcome is less certain, as the vote count is tighter. Some House conservatives are (understandably) hesitant about giving Obama any additional power, meaning at least some Democrat “yes” votes will be needed.

But with the intraparty fight in full swing, it’s a question all its own whether Democrats will pause long enough to cast those votes.

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