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Revolt over TPP: Senate Dems Rebuke Obama by Blocking Debate on Secretive Trade Deal

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In a surprising setback for President Obama, Senators from his own party have blocked debate on a bill that would have given the president fast-track authority to negotiate the Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP. The vote marked a victory for Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid, Elizabeth Warren and other critics of the TPP, a 12-nation trade pact that would encompass 40 percent of the global economy and is being negotiated in secret between the United States and 11 other Pacific Rim countries. Critics say the deal would hurt workers, undermine regulations and expand corporate power. Fast track would grant the president authority to negotiate the TPP and then present it to Congress for a yes-or-no vote, with no amendments allowed. We are joined by Lori Wallach, director of Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch and author of “The Rise and Fall of Fast Track Trade Authority.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: In a surprising setback for President Obama, senators from his own party blocked debate on a bill that would have given the president fast-track authority to negotiate the Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP. The Senate voted 52 to 45, short of the 60 votes needed. The vote marked a victory for Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid, Elizabeth Warren and other critics of the TPP.

Fast track would grant the president authority to negotiate the TPP and then present it to Congress for a yes-or-no vote, with no amendments allowed. The failure to win the necessary votes came after pro-trade Democrats, including Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon, insisted that fast track be bundled together with three other trade bills. This is Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell speaking after the vote.

MAJORITY LEADER MITCH McCONNELL: What we’ve just witnessed here is the Democratic Senate shut down the opportunity to debate the top economic priority of the Democratic president of the United States.

AMY GOODMAN: The TPP is a 12-nation trade pact that would encompass 40 percent of the global economy, and is being negotiated in secret between the United States and 11 [other Pacific Rim] countries. Critics say the deal would hurt workers, undermine regulations and expand corporate power.

To talk more about the significance of the Senate vote, we go to Washington, D.C., where we’re joined by Lori Wallach, director of Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch, author of The Rise and Fall of Fast Track Trade Authority.

Welcome back to Democracy Now!, Lori. So, what happened? The president’s own party said no to him in the Senate?

LORI WALLACH: Well, in the big picture, it’s a sign of how broad the opposition to fast track is that there’s even a close vote on trade, much less a defeat of a trade bill in the Senate. The Senate is normally a very comfortable place for a bad trade vote.

What happened yesterday was a fight over two things related to the trade bill, but not exactly the trade bill. First, on June 1, the highway and infrastructure bill sunsets, so if the Senate doesn’t bring those up and reauthorize them, in the middle of prime construction season tens of thousands of construction workers are going to get laid off because a bill was allowed to expire. There are other things that end June 1 that Senator Reid said, “Why the rush on fast track? Let’s do the things that are expiring. We can debate fast track when we come back in June.”

Second thing had to do with what pieces of trade legislation. There are four separate bills. And what Senator Reid said is, “We’re not going to let you just vote on fast track and leave all the other pieces, some of which have to do with the enforcement of trade agreements, some of which have to do with benefits for the people who are—who lose their jobs to trade agreements. We’re not going to let you leave those at the curb.” And basically, Majority Leader McConnell said, “I’m in charge. You’re not anymore. I’m doing it my way.” And so, in the face of my way or the highway, they sent him to the highway.

But it’s not over. It’s going to come back up for another repackaging. It was a very important signal, because the whole point in going to the Senate was to show, oh, fast track has momentum, because in the House it’s in real, honest-to-God trouble. In the Senate, it’s more like skirmishes, that show how extremely well the public has done in making their senators, as well as their House members, wary of doing this trade vote. But in the Senate, eventually they will get the vote. In the House, different piece of business. And so, folks who don’t want to see fast track, the House is the place to focus. But for the next couple of weeks, call your senators, because it’s an interesting food fight.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, Lori, but the president expended quite a bit of capital on this, calling out some senators by name, saying they were stuck in the past, in past debates. What do you make of the almost universal turn against him on this issue, at least at this point?

LORI WALLACH: I think the attacks that he’s waged, particularly on Senator Warren, Senator Elizabeth Warren, but on others, that all the critics are uninformed—seeing the president, who wouldn’t get angry and attack the pharmaceutical companies that wanted to kill his healthcare bill, the Wall Street giants who tried to derail reregulation—he’s really just not been ever willing to go out after folks. And then to see him go in such a disdainful and personal way after someone like Elizabeth Warren as, of all things, uninformed and unintelligent, that really—all that’s done is put starch in the shorts of a lot of her colleagues. So I do believe that there were a variety of senators who, on some level, were sort of teetering on the fence, and the president conducting himself in that way seems to have created a sense of solidarity amongst the Democratic senators—

AMY GOODMAN: Lori, we—

LORI WALLACH: —including those who are not with us on trade.

AMY GOODMAN: We wanted to go to a clip of President Obama on MSNBC responding to criticism from Democratic Senator Warren, who says the TPP would undermine U.S. sovereignty and help the rich get richer.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I love Elizabeth. We’re allies on a whole host of issues. But she’s wrong on this. Everything I do has been focused on how do we make sure the middle class is getting a fair deal. Now, I would not be doing this trade deal if I did not think it was good for the middle class. And when you hear folks make a lot of suggestions about how bad this trade deal is, when you dig into the facts, they are wrong.

AMY GOODMAN: So they are wrong, he says. If you can explain why you’re so concerned about this, Lori?

LORI WALLACH: Well, first of all, if he’s so confident that we’re all wrong and he’s got it right, he should release the darn text of the TPP, under negotiation for six years, almost completed. Let the public read it and come to their own point of view. Given that some of the chapters have leaked, in fact, on the merits, Senator Warren is right, the president is wrong.

We know that the TPP will make it easier to offshore our jobs. Why? Because thanks to WikiLeaks, we know it includes an expanded version of the same incentives to offshore jobs in its investment chapter that were found in the North American Free Trade Agreement, NAFTA. Those are rules that the Cato Institute, a free trade libertarian think tank, calls a subsidy on offshoring, on lowering the risk premium of offshoring. Specific rules, we’ve all seen them with our own eyes. It’s the old NAFTA rules for offshoring.

Or, the Obama administration has admitted the labor and environmental standards they’re now saying are new, improved, amazing, are what Bush had in his last four agreements. And those are standards, as well as not being beloved by a single environmental or labor group—i.e. the groups that have a specialty in workers’ rights and the environment oppose the agreement and say the standards aren’t sufficient. In addition, the Bush standards are in the TPP, are explicitly reviewed in the end of last year by the GAO, the Government Accountability Office, and found to totally fail to change conditions on the ground in the countries where they’re applied.

These are things we actually know about the agreement on the financial issue that Senator Warren has raised. Why do we know that’s true? In addition to the fact that most of the other TPP countries are complaining about that issue and worried about what it would mean for them to have these limits on financial regulation, in addition, parts of that chapter have leaked. We can see, for instance, that the TPP would ban the use of capital controls, the very policies now the IMF is telling countries to use to avoid speculative swishes of money in and out or the growth of speculative bubbles that turn into crises. This, we have seen. So, on the merits, she is right, the president is wrong.

But the notion that the attack from the president is on the messenger versus defending the agreement, making it public, is particularly aggrieving. It’s a choice. It’s a situation they put themselves in by deciding to side with the 500 corporate trade advisers over the last six years, instead of implementing the trade reform promises President Obama made in 2008. The labor movement, the environmental groups, everyone has just worked incredibly hard through the TPP negotiations to try and get the administration to adopt the vision that the president had as a candidate. And instead, they doubled down on the same old, same old. So, of course, the entire Democratic base is on the warpath against fast track for the TPP. It’s a future we will not tolerate for ourselves, for our families, for our country.

AMY GOODMAN: Very quickly, who are the people who are negotiating the TPP?

LORI WALLACH: The TPP is negotiated in the United States by a office that’s a part of the executive office of the presidency. It’s called the Office of the United States Trade Representative. And they are advised by over 500 corporate advisers. The advisers are official advisers. They have security clearance, so they can see the texts. Of that whole bunch, mixed in with 500 corporate advisers—for instance, some committees are only corporate. The one on medicine patents and pricing is just pharmaceutical companies, not a single health or consumer or elders group. But mixed in there are about 20 labor unions, three environmental groups, one consumer group and one family farm group. So you’ve had basically an insular set of government attorneys, many of whom have rotated from the private-sector interests into the office and back out. So, the guy who was the lead negotiator on pharmaceuticals used to work for the pharmaceutical industry. The guy doing the food stuff worked for the GMO industry. The guy who’s the number three guy at USTR is a guy who comes from the Hollywood IT world. All of those guys—the trade representative is a guy from Citibank. All of those guys are then officially advised by corporate advisers. I couldn’t make this up.

AMY GOODMAN: Lori Wallach, we want to thank you for being with us and updating us on this major backlash against President Obama around stopping fast-track authority for the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Lori Wallach, director of Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch, author of The Rise and Fall of Fast Track Trade Authority, as we turn now to Burlington, Vermont. Juan?

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