Obama makes case for Pacific trade deal during trip to Oregon

Obama travels to Oregon to build support for trade deal that faces resistance in Congress

BEAVERTON, Ore. — Facing resistance from lawmakers in his own party to a sweeping free-trade deal with Asian nations, President Obama is lining up allies elsewhere — starting at Nike Inc. headquarters in this trade-friendly region.

Obama visited Nike on Friday as the athletic shoe and apparel giant said it would add 10,000 jobs to its domestic workforce if Congress signs off on the trade pact. So far, lawmakers are refusing to grant Obama the authority he seeks to close the international deal.

Dissent among lawmakers runs strong in both parties, and Obama's fellow Democrats are the main obstacle. The Democrats point to past deals, especially the North American Free Trade Agreement, as major factors in the decline of U.S. manufacturing.

House Republican leaders have all but acknowledged they don't have enough support to pass the bill and have yet to schedule votes, making the success of the trade agreement dependent on the president's personal lobbying effort.

“There have been a bunch of critics about trade deals generally,” Obama told a crowd at Nike headquarters, hoping to pressure recalcitrant Democrats to support a free-trade deal he says will protect workers and expand access to foreign markets.

“Typically, they're my friends, coming from my party, and they're my fellow travelers on minimum wage and on job training and on clean energy,” he said. “On every progressive issue, they're right there with me, and then on this one, they're, like, whoopin' on me!”

The Trans Pacific Partnership, still in negotiations among a dozen Pacific nations that include Japan, Canada, Mexico, Vietnam and Singapore, is the highest priority of Obama's legislative agenda in the waning years of his presidency.

He has personally courted wary members of Congress and promoted the initiative among his core political supporters, ignoring critics who say the deal would be a loser for the middle class.

Last month, Nike offered an unexpected assist. It notified the White House that it was willing to make a public promise that relief from tariffs on shoe imports and other provisions of the trade deal would allow it to add about 10,000 jobs — and that would create 40,000 more jobs at its suppliers and service companies.

The White House views Nike's announcement as a jolt of energy to its lobbying effort at a crucial point.

Certainly, some Democrats welcome that kind of positive development for the trade deal. Lawmakers from farming states are more open to the idea of such free-trade deals because they are designed to open the sale of American agricultural products to foreign markets.

Likewise, many Democrats in coastal states see the upside in increased commercial activity at ports. Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon is among key Democrats working to liberalize the trade rules.

“While trade in general tends to divide the president's party, there are important constituencies within the party who do support trade and are open to the arguments,” said Scott Miller, senior advisor on international business at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

One trade opponent, Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Sherman Oaks), estimated that Obama has fewer than 40 votes from the nearly 190 House Democrats — and that's far from the number needed to give the president the authority to complete the trade deal.

As views harden, lawmakers appear to be pulling away from Obama rather than moving toward his position. None of the top Democratic leaders in Congress has given support to allow Obama the so-called fast-track authority that would commit Congress to voting on an eventual trade pact without substantially changing it.

Many Republicans, meanwhile, who have typically delivered business-friendly votes for trade, are more skeptical of corporate intentions and are also deeply reluctant to extend more authority to a president they don't support.

Wyden, a point man in talks, has succeeded in negotiating beefed-up transparency measures that he argued will ensure lawmakers and the public have ample time to review the final trade pact — and shut off fast-track authority if they choose.

“We produced a proposal that is very different than trade policy of the 1990s,” he said, referring to NAFTA.

But those efforts have largely been panned by liberals and skeptical conservatives, and even more-neutral observers bristle that the review period is inadequate.

Columbia University professor Jeffrey D. Sachs, a leading expert on economic development, called it “unbelievable” that such a far-reaching trade deal was being crafted in a secretive process that would not be opened for broader public consideration until it comes to Congress for a vote.

“These things, I believe, need to be debated,” he said during a breakfast this week hosted by the Christian Science Monitor. “It's, in my opinion, not a proper process and not what the White House has been saying.”

The complexity of the 12-nation deal has only amplified the grounds for concern over providing the administration with the fast-track authority. Lawmakers want assurances that labor and environmental protections will be enforced, and they continue to be uneasy with the administration's unwillingness to include stronger protections against currency manipulation.

“This is no breakthrough; it's not progressive,” said Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), one of the few Democrats from trade-friendly Oregon who has come out against the deal. “It is what it is: It's an agreement to chase cheap labor around the world, just like the past agreements.”

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) wants to attach to the fast-track bill a broader package of proposals, including one that helps retrain workers who lose their jobs because of the trade deal. That could complicate passage of the fast-track bill because Republicans object to Reid's package.




Memoli reported from Beaverton and Mascaro from Washington. Times staff writer Christi Parsons in Washington contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times


5:53 p.m.: Updates with additional details

Originally posted at 1:20 p.m.