Dems deal blow to Obama’s historic trade agenda

Updated 7:13 PM EDT, Wed April 22, 2015
(CNN) —  

House Democratic leaders dealt a blow to President Barack Obama’s free trade agenda Wednesday by backing an alternative measure that has no chance of becoming law – but complicates passage of a bill Obama needs in order to secure what would be one of the largest trade deals in history.

On Thursday, the House Ways and Means Committee will decide whether to grant Obama’s Trans-Pacific Partnership a vote in Congress without amendments, a condition that trade negotiators see as crucial to getting the 11 other countries involved – particularly Japan – to finalize the deal. The TPP has broad bipartisan support, and Obama has pushed the agreement as being good for the American middle class.

But liberals, including labor unions and environmental groups, bitterly oppose the trade agreement, which they fear will hurt jobs in the U.S.

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So Democratic Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and the rest of her leadership team have decided to back a separate version that Rep. Sander Levin of Michigan is set to introduce Thursday.

It’s a bill loaded with progressive priorities – including stricter instructions for U.S. negotiators on labor rights and environmental protections – and requires negotiators to open markets for U.S. automakers and agricultural exporters in ways that other countries involved in the talks have already rejected.

And Levin’s bill would grant Obama fast-track authority only if a bipartisan set of House and Senate members decide that their instructions were being followed.

It’s the latest evidence of a roiling intra-party war over trade, with Obama aligning with business interests that support the deal and liberals lining up behind Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren to fight it.

It’s a battle that could put Hillary Clinton in a tough spot headed into the 2016 presidential race - and elevate her potential primary opponents, like Independent Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who used an arcane procedural maneuver to block a Senate panel’s vote on the fast-track bill Wednesday.

Levin has long called for a crack-down on currency manipulation, which isn’t part of the negotiations. He didn’t support the fast track bill introduced by House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wisconsin, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, and that panel’s ranking Democrat, Ron Wyden of Oregon.

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Pelosi has been careful not to directly criticize the White House push for fast-track authority, and in her statement on backing the alternative deal, she repeated her mantra that she is working to “find a path to yes.”

“On Thursday, Ranking Member Levin plans to offer a substitute, which recognizes that TPP has the potential to raise standards and open new markets for U.S. businesses, workers and farmers, and makes suggestions on how to do so,” Pelosi said in a written statement. “I support the Levin substitute and thank Ranking Member Levin for his dedication to finding a path to yes, and for his leadership to increase the paychecks of American workers.”

Levin released a summary of his bill earlier on Thursday and argued it gave Congress a greater role.

“TPP is too important to leave so many key issues outstanding or needing to be improved and essentially leave out a meaningful role for Congress, which is what the Hatch-Wyden-Ryan TPA bill does,” Levin said. “This alternative puts the TPP negotiations on the right track, providing a path forward to an agreement that will garner broad, bipartisan support in Congress.”