Obama Team Reaches Out to Dems on Trade Pact, But the Party’s Split Remains

The U.S. trade representative said members would have more access to documents related to the Trans-Pacific Partnership—but some Democrats are still unsatisfied.

Michael Froman
National Journal
Eric Garcia
Add to Briefcase
Eric Garcia
March 18, 2015, 2:07 p.m.

The Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion on Wed­nes­day offered new con­ces­sions in a bid for Demo­crat­ic sup­port for new trade deals, but in-per­son meet­ings from high-rank­ing of­fi­cials—and prom­ises of more ac­cess to in­side in­form­a­tion on the ne­go­ti­ations—were not enough to win over some of the pres­id­ent’s fel­low Demo­crats.

U.S. Trade Rep­res­ent­at­ive Mi­chael Fro­man had two meet­ings with House Demo­crats Wed­nes­day, one ac­com­pan­ied by Treas­ury Sec­ret­ary Jack Lew and the oth­er by Labor Sec­ret­ary Thomas Perez, among oth­ers. Both were re­lated to the Trans-Pa­cific Part­ner­ship, a free-trade agree­ment among 12 Asia-Pa­cific coun­tries, in­clud­ing the United States, Aus­tralia, Ja­pan, and Mex­ico. The meet­ings were first re­por­ted by The Hill news­pa­per.

As a part of the meet­ing, the of­fi­cials also gran­ted mem­bers of Con­gress more ac­cess to doc­u­ments re­lated to the ne­go­ti­ations—a re­sponse to cri­ti­cism from mem­bers that they’ve lacked in­form­a­tion about the ne­go­ti­ations.

Fro­man told re­port­ers after the meet­ing with House Demo­crats that Perez said the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion had worked with com­mit­tees to make cer­tain changes to in­crease ac­cess­ib­il­ity. “We de­cided today to move for­ward with some early ac­tions in this area by mak­ing the text avail­able in the se­cur­ity of­fice, hav­ing plain lan­guage sum­mar­ies of each chapter to help fa­cil­it­ate mem­bers’ un­der­stand­ing and ac­cess to the text,” Fro­man said, adding that mem­bers will be al­lowed to bring staff with ap­pro­pri­ate se­cur­ity clear­ances.

Rep. Lloyd Dog­gett, a Demo­crat from Texas, wel­comed ac­cess­ib­il­ity, as well as the abil­ity to see the po­s­i­tions of for­eign gov­ern­ments on dis­puted points of the deal. “It’s of par­tic­u­lar im­port­ance to see the po­s­i­tions that coun­tries are tak­ing,” Dog­gett told Na­tion­al Journ­al.

But even as the ad­min­is­tra­tion at­temp­ted to boost trans­par­ency, there were re­mind­ers of the talks’ secrecy. “They handed me the doc­u­ments, wouldn’t al­low me to take any notes when I was read­ing the doc­u­ments, wouldn’t al­low me to keep any notes, wouldn’t al­low me to have my staff in the of­fice, ac­tu­ally told me I couldn’t dis­cuss it with oth­er mem­bers,” Rep. Alan Grayson told Na­tion­al Journ­al after one of the meet­ings.

And the in­tra­party rift over trade policy clearly re­mains open. One par­tic­u­lar point of con­ten­tion is trade-pro­mo­tion au­thor­ity, a “fast-track” power the ad­min­is­tra­tion has re­ques­ted that would give the ex­ec­ut­ive branch more lever­age to ne­go­ti­ate trade deals. Any deals reached would still but sub­ject to con­gres­sion­al ap­prov­al, but the le­gis­lat­ive in­put would be lim­ited to an up-or-down vote in Con­gress, and law­makers would not have the abil­ity to amend the deals.

Demo­crat­ic Rep. Rosa De­Lauro of Con­necti­c­ut said there are still not the votes for provid­ing that power. “There are a lot of un­answered ques­tions that we would have and be­fore we would be­gin to think about provid­ing trade pro­mo­tion au­thor­ity,” she said.

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