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Wyden Knows His Challenge on Trade: Fellow Democrats

Wyden is the lead Democrat on Trade Promotion Authority legislation. (Courtesy Michael Bonfigli/The Christian Science Monitor)

"Trade has never been for the faint-hearted," Sen. Ron Wyden said Friday morning, less than 24 hours after announcing a bipartisan agreement on legislation to promote trade deals.  

The Oregon Democrat is in the unenviable position of being his party's leading voice on Capitol Hill in support of revived fast-track Trade Promotion Authority for President Barack Obama, a position that puts him squarely in line with the White House and most Republicans, but at odds with key parts of the Democratic coalition.  

Wyden's challenge to his Democratic colleagues who may be on the fence? Convincing them this isn't the 1990s all over again, when the North American Free Trade Agreement and other deals led to regrets among some Democrats. Wyden said Friday that Obama's already been helpful to those efforts.  

"The president and I have talked about this on a number of occasions, and when the president said in his State of Union address that past trade agreements didn't live up to their hype, that was very helpful because it helped to frame everything that I've been working for all of these last six months," Wyden said at a Christian Science Monitor breakfast. "Don't miss the differences between this and the 1990s."  

Senate Republican lawmakers and aides have long pushed the White House got get more active in lobbying and cajoling Democrats on the trade agenda, where the administration position pretty well aligns with the GOP, and they've said that recently Obama has gotten more involved.  

Obama was quick to praise introduction of the bill, saying it would "help us negotiate trade agreements that are good for our economy, our businesses, and most importantly for our workers."  

Wyden thinks transparency requirements will be key to building more support.  

"One of my priorities in setting out on this journey is I wanted to ensure that there is a fairer fight and fairer debate, and that's why, for example, I really went to the mat on these secrecy issues, and now when we look at the clock and how it works, and you're going to have the entire [Trans-Pacific Partnership] and other agreements ... public for four full months before congresspeople start voting," Wyden said. "You're starting to have a fairer game. You're starting to have a fairer fight."  

Wyden's taken no shortage of heat from the left already, with a group of Internet activists bringing a 30-foot blimp around to town hall meetings in Oregon over the past recess.  

Critics of fast track consider it to be a game of hide-the-ball: agreements themselves are kept mostly under wraps until after Congress has agreed to take up-or-down votes without amendment.  

And fast-track opponents, led by organized labor and other liberal groups, have been active in lobbying against the proposal even before it was unveiled Thursday by Senate Finance Chairman Orrin G. Hatch, R-Utah; House Ways and Means Chairman Paul D. Ryan, R-Wis., and Wyden.  

"I made the judgement that it's pretty hard to deal with all the trade opportunities if you don't have some set of modern rules to kind of be your lodestar," Wyden said. "For example, on the question of putting the brakes on a flawed trade agreement, something that has never been done before, you've got to change the rules in order to do something that if you look back 10 years ago, progressive folks really wanted that."  

"Now, I understand just because we have that in the bill ... doesn't mean there's some magical kumbaya moment and everybody agrees," Wyden said. "But, that would be an example of why you need the rule change."  

The AFL-CIO and other opponents have held protests in D.C. and elsewhere, and groups such as the Sierra Club are not buying assurances about the environmental protections in future trade pacts.  

"This fast-track bill is toxic for Congress and for our air, water, and climate. We've seen this all before," said Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune. "This bill replicates an old, failed model of trade authority that rushes deals through Congress and strips out the vital protections and oversight that ensure trade pacts benefit American communities, workers, and the environment."  

While Wyden declined to discuss specifically how fellow Finance Committee Democrats would vote, he did predict a "strong vote."  

"I think everyone understands that there is a long, long way to go after this," Wyden said.  

And asked about how his activism on trade might affect him in his 2016 re-election bid back in Oregon, Wyden repeated a familiar refrain. of his  

"I've always said the best politics is good policy," Wyden said. "I am proud to be a Democrat, and I'm an American, and I'm going to do everything I can to try to break through the gridlock on some of these issues."  

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