Hillary Clinton takes a stand on trade - kind of

Washington CNN  — 

Hillary Clinton isn’t helping President Barack Obama salvage a free trade agenda that congressional Democrats are on the verge of wrecking.

But she’s also not taking a position on the trade promotion authority bill, which is crucial to determining whether the linchpin of Obama’s trade effort – the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership – ever gets done.

The Democratic frontrunner – purposefully or not – conflated the two issues in her most extensive remarks yet on trade during a Sunday rally in Des Moines, Iowa. She also implied she’d drive a harder bargain on both than Obama has.

“No president would be a tougher negotiator on behalf of American workers, either with our trade partners or Republicans on Capitol Hill, than I would be,” Clinton said.

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She cited House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi by name twice. However, Clinton didn’t weigh in at all on the bill the California Democrat maneuvered to block last week: so-called “trade promotion authority.”

It’s a measure that guarantees trade deals straight up-or-down votes without amendments – key, negotiators say, to getting foreign leaders to take the political risks of making their best offers and signing off on a final agreement.

That bill – not the Trans-Pacific Partnership itself – is what pitted Pelosi against Obama last week.

And if the party succeeds in killing trade promotion authority, Democrats would close the door on the Pacific deal before it’s even finalized.

The intra-party resistance to Obama’s trade efforts was laid bare on Friday when Pelosi-led congressional Democrats stunned the White House and turned against a bill they typically support, which aids displaced workers, because rejecting that bill had the procedural effect of also thwarting Republicans’ push to grant Obama trade promotion authority.

Clinton said that Democratic opposition should strengthen the Obama administration’s hand in talks with the other countries involved in the Trans-Pacific Partnership, including Japan, Australia, Canada and Mexico.

“There are some specifics in there that could and should be changed. So I am hoping that’s what happens now – let’s take the lemons and turn it into lemonade,” Clinton said.

But unless Congress grants Obama trade promotion authority, even the most optimistic free trade advocates admit, the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations have no path forward.

Brendan Buck, spokesman for the GOP-led House Ways and Means Committee, tweeted: “Either Clinton isn’t familiar with the very basics of [trade promotion authority] debate or she is being incredibly disingenuous.”

Clinton aides on Sunday downplayed the importance of trade promotion authority, which could come up for another vote in the House this week.

Chief strategist and pollster Joel Benenson said on ABC’s “This Week” that trade promotion authority is “Washington inside baseball about how we get there.”

Campaign manager Robby Mook told CBS’s “Face the Nation” that debate over the bill is “procedures and parliamentary this and that.”

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Clinton’s comments on trade came at her first campaign rally in Iowa after shifting her campaign away from small roundtables and toward bigger events, starting a day earlier in New York City.

Clinton has taken fire from liberal opponents like Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders for her lack of clarity on the issue.

The former first lady said any trade deal should protect U.S. jobs, increase wages and improve the nation’s security.

“In order to get a deal that meets these high standards, the President should listen to and work with his allies in Congress, starting with Nancy Pelosi, who have expressed their concerns about the impact that a weak agreement would have on our workers, to make sure we get the best, strongest deal possible,” she said. “And if we don’t get it, there should be no deal.”

She said that there are “voices, you’ve heard them, that are for the deal no matter what’s in it,” and those whose opposition is unmoving.

“I kind of fall in the group that says let’s find out what’s in it and let’s make it as good as it can be, and then let’s make a decision,” she said.

In the past, Clinton has offered several more specific critiques of the deal.

She’s said it should include a crackdown on countries that devalue their own currencies to give their exports a price advantage – which the Obama administration says won’t be included in the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

And she has criticized a chapter that allows companies to ask an international arbiter to rule on whether countries’ laws and regulations violate those countries’ obligations under the trade deal.

“I am willing to try now to see whether you can push to get rid of the objectionable parts, to drive a harder bargain on some of the other parts and to provide transparency so the American people can see what would be in a proposed final deal,” Clinton said Sunday.

“If I were in the White House, that’s what I would be doing right now,” she said.