Obama's trade team hopes Senate momentum will help overcome House Democrats' resistance

Economic IndicatorsAssociated Press

Backers of President Barack Obama's trade agenda hope a Senate committee's endorsement will help overcome partisan divides in the House.

The House Ways and Means Committee is scheduled to vote Thursday on a "fast track" bill similar to one endorsed late Wednesday by the Senate Finance Committee. It would renew presidential authority to present trade deals that Congress can endorse or reject, but not amend.

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Obama wants fast-track powers to advance free-trade proposals such as the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership. Many liberals and labor unions say free-trade pacts hurt U.S. jobs.

Democratic resistance appears stronger in the House. The top Ways and Means Democrat, Rep. Sander Levin of Michigan, is offering an alternative bill that would make greater demands on trading partners on issues including workers' conditions and currency policies. House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of California backs Levin's efforts.

Obama's opponents lost a round Wednesday. The Senate Finance Committee narrowly defeated a "currency manipulation" measure that Obama aides said would unravel the Pacific Rim deal. Votes for and against the provision were about evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats, highlighting the unusual — and possibly tenuous — political alignments on trade.

The committee later voted 20-6 to pass the fast-track bill. The only committee Republican voting no was Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina.

Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, said fast-track approval promises "high standard" trade deals in the future.

Few issues divide Democrats more than trade. Obama, like former President Bill Clinton, supports free trade, but many Democratic lawmakers do not.

Clinton's and Obama's stands — and liberal groups' opposition — pose a dilemma for Hillary Rodham Clinton, the former first lady now seeking the presidency herself. Campaigning this week in New Hampshire, she declined to say whether she supports the Pacific Rim proposal.

Rivals in both parties mocked her. But Obama seems likely to remain the focus of much ire, especially from fellow Democrats.

Obama says his Democratic opponents have their facts wrong. "I would not be doing this trade deal if I did not think it was good for the middle class," he said this week. He said Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts is among those "wrong" on the issue.

Warren responded with a blog: "The government doesn't want you to read this massive new trade agreement. It's top secret."

Obama and his trade allies reject such claims. They say fast-track and other trade proposals have been carefully negotiated and will undergo public scrutiny for months before final votes take place.

Their biggest scare Wednesday came when Republican Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio urged the Finance Committee to direct U.S. trade officials to take tougher stands against nations that allegedly keep their currency artificially low. The practice can boost exports by making local products more affordable to foreigners. Economists disagree on whether China and other nations engage in the practice.

Obama administration officials said attempts to crack down on currency manipulation can backfire and ignite trade wars. They said Portman's proposal could derail the Pacific-rim negotiations. The Finance Committee rejected Portman's amendment, 15-11.

Senate Finance members added a broader currency manipulation amendment, by Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, to a customs bill. But Schumer did not offer it on the fast-track bill, where it would have been more problematic for Obama.

Veteran GOP Rep. Tom Cole of Oklahoma estimates that about 180 to 200 House Republicans will vote for fast track, along with 15 to 30 Democrats. The low end of Cole's estimate would leave Obama short of a majority in the 435-seat House.

"This is the president's initiative," Cole said. "He's going to have to work his side of the aisle pretty hard."