While House Democratic leaders are scrambling to unify their Caucus on major energy and health care reforms, a smaller but explosive intraparty battle awaits as Congress girds for its first big trade fight under President Barack Obama.
Top Democrats are predicting the Panama free-trade agreement will come up for House consideration shortly, one of three pending trade deals left over from the Bush administration. Of those deals the other two are Colombia and South Korea Panama is the smallest and least controversial, and it could deliver Obama a big win on his first trade agenda item.
Were just waiting for the White House to bring it up here, said one senior House Democratic aide. Hopefully within the next few months. Maybe sooner than that.
But an increasingly agitated faction of Democrats is warning party leaders of ugly economic and political consequences if they try to move the Panama agreement.
Not only will it hurt the economy, critics say, but action on a Bush-negotiated trade deal endangers freshman Democrats in 2010 since many ran on a trade reform agenda. In addition, critics say, it doesnt bode well for Obama to anger a bloc of Democrats early on when he needs their support for his ambitious domestic agenda.
Im getting really pissed off, said House Rules Chairwoman Louise Slaughter (D), who represents a region of New York that has suffered under the North American Free Trade Agreement. Obamas got to get a hell of a lot of stuff up through here, and to start out by bumming out about half of us doesnt strike me as a wise move.
Rep. Mike Michaud (D-Maine), co-
chairman of the House Trade Working Group, singled out House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) in his criticism of his party leaders desire to advance the Panama deal. The working group includes several prominent Members, including six committee chairmen and 17 subcommittee chairmen.
As a Democratic leader, I dont think its helpful to vulnerable Members to ask them to support a Bush-negotiated trade deal, Michaud said. As a Democratic leader, [Hoyer] should not be encouraging the White House to move forward on this.
Critics of the Panama deal say their frustrations go beyond the tax, labor and environmental concerns often cited as sticking points. Instead, they say, the real issue is that Obama pledged during his presidential campaign to re-examine U.S. trade policy.
Panama itself is not a big deal, said one aide to a House Democrat opposed to the agreement. Its an opportunity to re-evaluate our cookie-cutter trade deals and then use that as a framework. ... Panama sets the course for what future agreements look like.
During a meeting last month with representatives from the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, Slaughter spoke on behalf of about 20 Members in voicing concerns with the Panama deal. The USTR attendees seemed receptive, she said, but have not contacted her since the meeting.
I carried on awful, Slaughter said of the hourlong meeting. Were not just going to take all of this stuff lying down anymore.
But beyond voting against the Panama agreement and clashing with their leaders, its unclear what Democratic opponents can really do.
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