Hillary Rodham Clinton waded into the increasingly intense fight among Democrats over trade on Sunday, saying President Obama should listen to critics of a proposed Pacific trade deal, led by House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, and try to come up with "an agreement that would be better and not worse for American workers."
Clinton, who had avoided commenting on the trade debate for weeks while it was under consideration in Congress, told supporters at a gathering in Burlington, Iowa, that "I have held my peace because I thought it was important for the Congress to have a full debate without thrusting presidential politics and candidates into it."
Now, however, following the House's rejection Friday of legislation that would have given Obama so-called fast-track authority to negotiate trade deals, "I think the president and his team could have a chance to drive a harder bargain, because they are now in the position of saying to all of these other countries, 'We need to maximize the number of winners.' "
Clinton's decision to side with the critics marked her most consequential break with Obama since she began her presidential campaign and came on an issue that unions, environmental organizations and other groups in the left wing of the Democratic Party have turned into a test of strength against the White House.
The decision by Pelosi (D-San Francisco) to oppose the trade legislation came as a stinging rebuke to Obama. Republicans, led by House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.), said Democrats were speeding Obama's transition into lame-duck status.
The comments in Burlington were Clinton's second set of remarks on trade during a day of campaigning in Iowa. Earlier, at a rally in Des Moines, she made a more ambiguous statement, saying that "the president should listen to and work with his allies in Congress, starting with Nancy Pelosi, who have expressed their concerns about the impact that a weak agreement would have on our workers."
At the Burlington event, she was more emphatic, saying that to win her support, the 12-nation Pacific trade pact would have to be made "better" than the deal the administration is negotiating.
"What I want to see is a concerted effort to see how far we can push the agreement. If we push it far enough where it looks like we can do a better job, where we can have more winners than losers, then we can make that judgment. If we can’t, then we should make the other judgment.
"You will not hear me line up in this case with the 'pro trade' or the 'no trade' because my view has always been: Is it good for America or not?" she said. “If the specifics can get better then maybe it’s something worth supporting. If they can’t, then we don’t."
She specifically criticized two elements of the deal under negotiation. Specialized panels that hear trade disputes need to "listen to other voices besides corporate interests," she said. And big drug companies, which would be among the main winners in the deal, should be required to give Medicare a break on drug prices in return for the advantages the would receive, she said.
Both proposals would be bitterly opposed by Republicans.
Before Sunday, Clinton's silence on the issue had garnered strong criticism from some members of her party and rivals seeking the nomination, including Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont.
On Sunday, Sanders urged Clinton to “side with the unions” against passage of the trade bill, which will be reviewed in the House again next week.
“I would hope very much that Secretary Clinton will side with every union in this country, virtually every environmental group, many religious groups,” in opposition to the trade proposal, Sanders said on CBS' “Face the Nation.”
Spurred by criticism from labor unions and the left wing of the party, House Democrats rebuffed a dramatic personal appeal from Obama on Friday and voted down a package of measures that would have allowed the White House to conclude a trade deal that Congress could approve or reject but could not amend.
Although the House approved fast-track authority for the White House, it rejected a related measure to retrain displaced American workers, usually something Democrats support. Labor and many Democrats are skeptical that the proposed free-trade deal would benefit U.S. workers.
The Senate had passed both measures as a package, but the entire initiative failed in the House.
Labor Secretary Thomas E. Perez predicted Sunday that the proposed trans-Pacific trade accord would be completed despite the rejection by House Democrats.
"I’m very confident that we can find a way,” Perez said on ABC’s "This Week." “There are multiple pathways here.”
He called the House vote on Friday a “procedural hurdle” that would be overcome.
In his Saturday radio address, Obama urged opponents of the 12-nation trade deal to reconsider and warned that China's fast-growing economy stood to gain if they didn't.
"Simply put, America has to write the rules of the 21st century economy in a way that benefits American workers," Obama said. "If we don't, countries like China will write those rules in a way that benefits their workers.”
Ryan said he remained optimistic that a deal would pass.
"The president has a lot of work to do with his own party to turn this around and salvage this," Ryan, who supports the deal, said on "Fox News Sunday."
"It's ironic," he added. "They are the ones who are making him a very lame-duck president, his own party."
Ryan, who ran for vice president on the GOP ticket in 2012, said Clinton's failure to state a position "is just sort of mystifying to me."
"It's about global leadership," he added. "And surely a person who was secretary of State understands something about American leadership."