Senate Democrats block Obama-backed trade deal

Sharp contrast between voter views, politics on the Hill suggest Obama may yet succeed in Pacific trade deal

Even as President Obama's bid for a sweeping Pacific trade deal was dealt a stinging blow by lawmakers in his own party, there is growing support from the American public for expanding global commerce, particularly among Latinos and blacks whose influence is rising in the Democratic Party.

Senate Democrats successfully filibustered a White House-backed measure Tuesday to give Obama the authority he said he needs to complete the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership.

But the sharp contrast between the politics on Capitol Hill and the views of voters on the ground suggests Obama may yet succeed as he presses ahead with his top legislative goal in the waning months of his presidency.

Various surveys indicate that substantially more Democrats today favor trade agreements than a few years ago, when most liberals feared they would shift U.S. jobs overseas.

More surprising, the margin of support for trade among Democrats is even greater than among Republicans, whose party has long championed trade agreements and is working with Obama in a rare alliance to approve so-called fast-track authority.

To some extent, the changing view on trade among ordinary Democrats stems from the improved economy as well as Obama's persistent stumping for the Pacific trade deal, which has probably caused many of his loyal followers to line up behind him.

Political analysts note that most Americans haven't thought a lot about trade agreements and that their opinions are malleable.

At the same time, the growing acceptance of trade reflects the changing face of the Democratic electorate, which is increasingly younger, minority and globally connected.

Though blacks, Latinos and Asian Americans made up only about a quarter of all voters in 2012, they proved to be critical for Democratic victories, and their share will keep growing with increasing size and turnout, said William Frey, a Brookings Institution demographer.

"You would think Latinos would be more against trade" given their party affiliation and concentration in lower-wage manufacturing and agricultural industries, said Raul Hinojosa-Ojeda, a UCLA Chicano studies professor.

"But they're not," he said. "And I think it has to do, in part, with their international experience. Having exchanges across the border doesn't necessarily create anxiety because they've experienced it themselves."

The apparent disconnect between attitudes on the Hill and on Main Street could give lawmakers some political cover as the White House continues to lobby congressional Democrats to buck their party leadership and stand up to key Democratic backers, such as organized labor.

Top union officials have threatened a severe backlash for Democrats who break ranks to support the Pacific trade pact, but the public's broadly pro-trade sentiments indicate that those who do decide to back Obama on trade may not pay a huge price among voters.

Tuesday's 52-45 vote in favor of a bill on trade-promotion authority for the president fell short of the 60 votes needed to break the Democratic filibuster. The fast-track measure would let Obama submit a trade agreement to Congress with the assurance that lawmakers must approve or reject it with no amendments.

The Obama administration said fast-track authority is necessary to complete negotiations with Japan, Vietnam, Singapore and eight other countries for what would be the biggest trade pact in American history.

The Trans-Pacific Partnership involves nations that make up about 40% of the world economy. Obama has staked part of his legacy on the accord, aimed at eliminating tariffs and other barriers and establishing high-standard rules on e-commerce, intellectual property and other areas of trade and investment.

Many Democratic lawmakers have criticized the secrecy in negotiations and fear that the trade deal will not deliver the kinds of benefits to American workers or provide the level of labor and environmental protections that the administration has promised it would.

Underscoring the divisive and unpredictable nature of trade politics, a handful of pro-trade Democrats came out against the motion just ahead of the vote, siding with Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada and others who insisted that the fast-track bill be packaged with measures aiding workers hurt by trade and preventing countries from manipulating their currencies to gain an economic advantage.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), speaking moments before the vote, vowed that the "issue's not over." He is expected to try again in the days ahead. Business groups roundly expressed disappointment with Tuesday's vote.

Obama's prospects for winning fast-track authority — and ultimately the Pacific trade deal — are still thought to be better in the Senate than in the House, where many conservative Republicans are wary of helping a president they oppose achieve a victory on a landmark accord.

One line of argument that the White House has employed in its heavy lobbying is that public opinion is on the administration's side.

Surveys from several research and news organizations show that significantly more Democrats today see "free trade" as positive, at least in theory. In a Gallup poll in February, 61% of Democrats viewed trade as an opportunity rather than a threat, up from 47% in 2011 and 10 percentage points higher than Republicans.

An April survey by the Wall Street Journal and NBC found that for the first time in 15 years, a plurality of Americans said that free trade helped the U.S. as opposed to hurting it, with the movement mostly coming from people who identify themselves as Democrats, particularly blacks and Latinos.

Such results have "really scrambled the conventional thinking about what rank-and-file Democrats think about this issue," said Patrick Egan, an associate professor of politics and public policy at New York University.

And contrary to the notion that Republicans are free traders, he said, there are many in the GOP whose isolationist and hawkish attitudes carry into their opinions about trade.

Bruce Stokes, director of global economic attitudes at the Pew Research Center, went further in saying that results of surveys, including by Pew, show that the trade debate in Washington is really more between special interests. It's "out of touch with the sentiments of voters in the two parties," he said.

How that may affect the outcome in the end isn't clear.

Hinojosa-Ojeda, the UCLA professor, remembers how many Latinos and Latino lawmakers in 1993 were caught between the union-backed Democratic leadership's opposition to the North American Free Trade Agreement among Canada, Mexico and the U.S. and their personal attitudes that tended to be more open to trade.

Some Latino lawmakers initially opposed to NAFTA changed their mind, he said, after the Clinton administration offered some sweeteners such as a North American development bank.

"We really have a conundrum here," he said. "The irony is that we have this base of the Democratic party, particularly Latinos, who are more favorably disposed to immigration reform and agreements across borders."

Thus far, about half of the nearly two dozen House members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus have publicly stated firm opposition to the Pacific trade deal, according to Presente.org, an online Latino advocacy group that has been pressuring Latino lawmakers to come out against fast-track and the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

Aides of some of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus members say some of those who haven't spoken out have been lobbied hard by the administration and are reluctant to take a strong stance against the president.

Arturo Carmona, executive director of the Los Angeles online advocacy group, acknowledged that Latinos may have a favorable opinion of trade in the broader sense.

"But," he said, "when you begin to expose a lot of the details, opinions quickly change."

don.lee@latimes.com

lisa.mascaro@latimes.com

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