Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., is suddenly nostalgic for Bill Clinton, contrasting his administration’s pro-trade economic policy and pro-business approach on labor relations with what he calls President Obama’s “very left-wing” agenda.
McConnell has already tried to torment Democrats with Clinton’s advice that they should not protect the Medicare status quo after their upset victory in the New York-26 special election. But this is all about simmering GOP anger over stalled free trade deals -- and outright fury over the dispute between Boeing and the National Labor Relations Board regarding the company’s new 787 Dreamliner plant in South Carolina.
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First of all, McConnell told National Journal, he considers Obama’s jobs rhetoric insincere.
“So far this year it’s just been all rhetoric,” said McConnell, quoting back the president’s recent speeches. "‘I wake up every morning, thinking about jobs.’ Well, that’s nice. But excessive regulation, failure to pass trade deals, advocating tax increases [in Obama's 2012 budget] -- these are not the kinds of things that create jobs or the kinds of things that comfort businesses who are thinking about spending some of the $2 trillion American business is sitting on right now. They’re going to spend that only if they think they can afford to add new people.”
McConnell also accused Obama and congressional Democrats of ignoring economic hard times.
“What seems to be happening here among Democrats whether they are in the majority in the Senate, the minority in the House, or down at the White House -- they’re just kind of treading water hoping things will get better. Well, look at the jobs report,” McConnell said.
The White House had no comment on McConnell’s criticisms.
McConnell said the Boeing case and paralysis over free trade demonstrate the sharp differences Obama and Clinton on key economic questions.
“I cannot imagine the Clinton administration doing anything like this,” McConnell said, referring to the Boeing-NLRB flap. “And when President Clinton said he was in favor of a treaty for a free trade agreement, he sent it up and he argued for it and helped us pass it. This is a very, very left-wing administration.”
Boeing has opened a second Dreamliner production facility in North Charleston, S.C., to boost production of the popular airliner. The NLRB has filed a complaint against the company, arguing it opened the factory in right-to-work South Carolina to punish unionized workers in Washington state who have engaged in work stoppages five times since 1975, most recently a 58-day strike in 2008. The Boeing facility is up and running, and 1,000 employees are due to begin work on the first 787 jetliner this summer -- which has not reduced Boeing’s Everett, Wash., workforce. Boeing has increased its unionized workforce by 2,000 since announcing the South Carolina expansion in 2009. Settlement talks between Boeing and the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers have foundered.
“It’s very, very disturbing,” McConnell said of the Boeing-NLRB standoff. “Somebody needs to remind the NLRB that instead of creating jobs in South Carolina, they could be creating jobs in Mexico. This is an outrageous governmental overreach. If I were the president of the United States, I would say, ‘Thank you, Boeing, for creating jobs in South Carolina and not creating them some other place in the world.’ I’d be patting them on the back and going to the ribbon-cutting if I were invited. Even though he didn’t do this, he can comment on it just like anybody else in the country. It’s shocking. When an agency does something [Obama] disagreed with, he could say something about it -- which would comfort American business if he spoke up and said, ‘Look, I want to thank Boeing for creating jobs in South Carolina rather than Mexico, Peru, or any other place in the world.’"
White House press secretary Jay Carney addressed this issue at length for the first time last week.
“It is an independent body,” Carney said of the NLRB, which has a Democratic majority due to Obama appointments. “It’s an independent agency’s enforcement action. We don’t get involved in particular enforcement matters of independent agencies. The president has a strong record on labor rights. But we also support a strong private sector in the United States that helps our economy grow and create jobs. Boeing is a great American company, and it’s doing good things. The agency here is independent, and it’s an enforcement action. And to assert that we somehow are against robust growth of private sector companies, and especially companies that invest here and increase our exports, is just wrong.”
On trade, McConnell said Obama is held in thrall by his Chicago-based reelection team.
“From the president’s point of view, I think he’s torn. His political people are telling him, ‘Do as little as possible, except change the rhetoric.’ So, he talks about job creation, but then he withholds sending the trade agreements up because the AFL-CIO wants him to produce the Trade Adjustment Assistance bill in advance. We’re willing to talk about it, but it needs to be connected to Trade Promotion Authority.”
That authority, which gives presidents the power to receive expedited and unamended congressional consideration of trade deals, lapsed in 2007. McConnell said that without it, Republicans won’t budge on Trade Adjustment Assistance, a program that began in 1962 and now has four separate federal subsidy tracks to help workers who have been laid off or had work hours cut back due to free trade deals. Democrats want to expand these benefits to service sector and government workers laid off during the recession. Republicans want to slash the program, arguing its $2 billion price tag is too high and its economic benefits meager. The deadlock over trade adjustment benefits has also paralyzed three pending trade deals, with South Korea, Panama, and Colombia. And that has led to other paralysis. Senate Republicans will not confirm Commerce secretary nominee John Bryson until they receive the pending trade deals.
The House Ways and Means Committee has taken the lead in negotiations with the White House and U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk over the pending trade deals and a possible compromise on TAA and TPA. Administration and House GOP sources say the talks are progressing and a bill extending TAA could pass the House as a stand-alone measure, but only with the trade deals knitted alongside in tight sequence -- either just before or right after. McConnell's demand for TPA alongside TAA vastly complicates the issue because it's unclear how the House would deal with TPA, and it's even less certain that a TAA-TPA package could prevail with the 60 votes needed to pass the Senate.
“We’d be happy to pass the three trade agreements, period,” McConnell said. “But if the president and the Democrats want to talk about TAA, then that will be linked to TPA, which is to his advantage. I mean, he’s the president. Does he ever want to have another trade agreement?”
This article appears in the June 17, 2011, edition of National Journal Daily PM Update.