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New Democrats Try to Assuage K Street

Just months after registering its opposition to a key trade bill this summer, the centrist House New Democrat Coalition is reasserting itself with the business community and sending the message that it has not abandoned its support for opening up global markets.

The first sign of the 43-member coalition’s efforts came late last week when the New Democrat leadership met privately with high-profile business lobbyists to negotiate the terms of an upcoming free trade agreement with Thailand.

That session, the New Democrats say, was the first of many meetings with K Street to help troubleshoot trade deals that are set to come before Congress.

“We want to be sure the business community knows that we are at the ready to work with them, and we are interested in working with them,” said Rep. Ellen Tauscher (Calif.), chairwoman of the New Democrats.

Earlier this year, New Democrats came out as a group against the Central American Free Trade Agreement — a hotly contested measure that narrowly passed the House in July. In the end, just a handful of New Democrats supported the bill. The agreement passed, 217-215, just after midnight amid intense lobbying on both sides of the aisle and largely along party lines.

Tauscher said despite the group’s opposition to CAFTA, the New Democrats remain and will continue to be supportive of free and fair trade. Tauscher said CAFTA was a rare instance in which the centrist Democrats voted “no” on a key trade deal after concluding it was politically motivated and a bad deal for American workers and Central American countries.

“In the end, the deal failed the test and we couldn’t support it,” she said. “A lot of it was about politics, because that’s what the Republican majority wanted it to be about.”

Now, the New Democrats are looking to help fine-tune future agreements, including those involving Thailand, the Andean nations, Panama and others. Tauscher said her group is “engaged” and “in the game” when it comes to helping put together upcoming trade policies.

Rep. Artur Davis (Ala.), a New Democrat co-chairman, said the group has a long history of supporting small-scale trade agreements, including those with Chile and Singapore, as well as major deals, such as fast-track trade negotiating authority for the president and Permanent Normal Trade Relations status for China. CAFTA, he said, was a “uniquely flawed agreement.”

Davis said the recent meetings with business lobbyists aren’t about fence-mending but rather about working toward creating “real reforms” around which both Democrats and Republicans can rally. “You don’t abandon old friendships because of one vote,” Davis said.

“Honestly, I don’t think the New Democrats have anything to prove,” Davis added. “I think the New Democrats are the most consistent voice in the Democratic Caucus for fair trade policies.”

Even so, the New Democrats did not escape criticism from some pro-CAFTA lobbyists who felt the group had abandoned them and in doing so risked permanently damaging relationships. At the time, many said privately that the New Democrats had forgotten its free-trade roots.

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