Washington's Trade Debate Becomes Democratic Presidential Primary Issue

Jun 15, 2015
Originally published on June 17, 2015 9:21 pm
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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

As lawmakers ponder that giant part of President Obama's legacy, the president wants to add another. He's trying to finish a Pacific trade deal. He wants broad negotiating authority from Congress.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And that is dividing his party in Congress, where many Democrats focus on the cost to American workers. On Friday, a vote went south for the president's side. Many Democrats did not support the president.

INSKEEP: The Democratic Party divide has increased the pressure on the leading Democratic presidential candidate to say what side she's on. NPR's Tamara Keith has been listening to Hillary Clinton campaign in Iowa.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: A giant American flag served as the backdrop as Hillary Clinton took the stage at her Iowa kickoff party at the State Fairgrounds. And what has become her stump speech started off much like it had the day before.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

PRES CAND HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON: I'm running for president to make our economy work for you and for every American.

KEITH: But then, about 20 minutes in, there was a shift.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

CLINTON: But I want to say a word about another issue. There's a lot of discussion right now about the potential Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, and I want to tell you what I think.

KEITH: The Obama administration is currently negotiating the trade deal with 11 other Pacific Rim countries, but the specifics remain shrouded in secrecy. Clinton said any deal would need to protect American workers, raise wages and create good jobs at home and be in the interest of national security. Yesterday, Clinton didn't say whether the trade pact meets those standards.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

CLINTON: You know, there are the voices - you've heard them - that are for the deal no matter what's in it. And there are the voices that are against the deal no matter what's in it. Well, I kind of fall in the group that says let's find out what's in it, and let's make it as good as it can be, and then let's make a decision.

KEITH: On Friday, the House of Representatives stymied President Obama on the fast-track trade authority he needs to seal the deal on the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Clinton suggested Obama should make lemonade out of these lemons.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

CLINTON: If I were in the White House, that would - that's what I'd be doing right now. I would be trying to figure out whether there is a way to get a deal that does what it should do for the American workers.

KEITH: Meanwhile, there's no wondering where independent Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders stands. He spoke through a small speaker propped up on a ladder at the Warren County Democrats Summer Picnic.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

SEN/PRES CAND BERNIE SANDERS: You are looking at a United States senator and a former congressman who voted against NAFTA, CAFTA and permanent normal trade relations with China...

(APPLAUSE)

SANDERS: ...And is helping to lead the effort to defeat this disastrous Trans-Pacific Partnership.

KEITH: And after his speech in a brief conversation with reporters, Sanders, who is running for president as a Democrat, criticized Clinton.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

SANDERS: I am not clear nor do I believe the American people are clear as to what Secretary Clinton's position is.

KEITH: In the days ahead, that question is sure to be asked again and again.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

SANDERS: Is she for it? Is she against it? Those are your two options. The president is for it. Most Democrats in the Congress are against it. I'm against it. Elizabeth Warren is against it. Sherrod Brown is against. Almost all Democrats in the House are against it. What is the secretary's position?

KEITH: Back at Clinton's event, it wasn't clear how her new statements on trade played with the 600 or so people in the room. One woman said it wasn't an issue she understood or was passionate about. Mike Cossitt supported Clinton in 2008 and praised other parts of her speech before bringing up trade unprompted.

MIKE COSSITT: I don't understand why we need another trade agreement. I didn't think NAFTA was a very good agreement. That's the one thing about Bill Clinton's presidency that I did not care for.

KEITH: Cossitt says he's hoping to see Sanders speak soon. Tamara Keith, NPR News, Des Moines, Iowa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.