Connecticut's loyal Obama allies face tough choices opposing trade deal with Pacific nations

Economic IndicatorsAssociated Press

Rep. Rosa DeLauro, a liberal stalwart from New Haven, finds herself in an unusual spot: She's fiercely opposed to President Barack Obama on a key issue.

The 13-term congresswoman is organizing opposition to legislation backed by Obama that would allow Congress to vote up or down, without amendments, a trade pact with 11 Pacific nations.

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"It's not a question of Democrats and Republicans," DeLauro said. "What we know from empirical data is that the agreement would increase the trade deficit, loss of jobs and depression of wages."

DeLauro also refuses to forfeit her prerogative to propose and negotiate changes in legislation. "I don't believe in giving up my constitutional authority," she said.

Fellow Connecticut Democratic Rep. Joe Courtney also opposes the Trans-Pacific Partnership. He cited the plight of unemployed workers he's met in his district who lost their jobs when plants closed due to trade.

"When I visit plants, talk to workers, tell them about extended unemployment and health benefits, the people are just looking at you," he said. Their message, he said, is "Thank you very much for your help, but I just want my job."

Connecticut, home to a strong manufacturing sector, has taken a hit as China, India, Vietnam and other Asian nations become more competitive as manufacturing centers, able to produce goods with cheaper labor, energy and other resources. The state's struggle to maintain its industrial base is a constant issue, cropping up in labor-management negotiations at union-represented companies, state labor legislation, economic development projects and political debate.

For the state's all-Democratic congressional district, the choice is difficult: back their constituents or support the president who leads their party.

"It's very awkward," Courtney said.

The Senate Finance Committee is scheduled to vote on fast-track legislation Wednesday. Most or all Finance Committee Republicans support fast track. Democratic supporters include Sens. Ron Wyden of Oregon, Maria Cantwell of Washington, Tom Carper of Delaware and Mark Warner of Virginia.

Obama said the pact will defend the interests of U.S. businesses and workers.

"If we do not help to shape the rules so that our businesses and our workers can compete in those markets, then China will set up rules that advantage Chinese workers, and Chinese businesses," he said.

The treaty with the Pacific nations has sparked the second major debate among Democrats over trade. In 1993, President Bill Clinton pushed through the North American Free Trade Agreement, overcoming fierce resistance from organized labor and Democrats in Congress.

"The issues are the same," DeLauro said.

For organized labor, an ally of Obama's, his demand that Congress pass the trade legislation borders on betrayal.

"We're the ones who go out and knock on doors, rally the troops at election time," said Lori Pelletier, executive secretary-treasurer of the Connecticut AFL-CIO. "When it comes to trade agreements, it's like they have a deaf ear to us."

Trade agreements are intended more to help business find overseas markets than boost production and jobs at home, she said.

"This is not about them buying our goods. This is about us buying their goods," she said.

Courtney said he believes Obama is pursuing the trade pact as part of "broader strategic considerations" with rising economies in China and other Asian nations.

"I understand there's almost a strategic national security aspect that's brought to bear," he said.

Despite strong Republican support for the legislation, DeLauro believes the minority Democrats in Congress can prevail.

"I'm optimistic," she said. "I believe we can do it."