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Democrats Skeptical of Kerry’s Pitch for Global Trade

For weeks, the White House has been lobbying skeptical Democrats to back a trade authorization bill that President Barack Obama needs to secure what would be the largest free trade agreement in history.

WASHINGTON, DC - JULY 29:  U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry answers questions about Israel's invasion of Gaza and the current situation in Ukraine following a meeting with Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin at the State Department July 29, 2014 in Washington, DC. Kerry responded to questions raised about his attempts to broker a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas.  (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - JULY 29: U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry answers questions about Israel's invasion of Gaza and the current situation in Ukraine following a meeting with Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin at the State Department July 29, 2014 in Washington, DC. Kerry responded to questions raised about his attempts to broker a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - JULY 29: U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry answers questions about Israel's invasion of Gaza and the current situation in Ukraine following a meeting with Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin at the State Department July 29, 2014 in Washington, DC. Kerry responded to questions raised about his attempts to broker a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

For weeks, the White House has been lobbying skeptical Democrats to back a trade authorization bill that President Barack Obama needs to secure what would be the largest free trade agreement in history.

The campaign to support the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, or TPP,  has involved scores of meetings with lawmakers and high-profile TV interviews emphasizing the opportunity for middle-class job growth and stricter international environmental regulations -- bread-and-butter issues for liberals. But this week, the administration tapped Secretary of State John Kerry to make a different argument: expanded trade in East Asia will be a boost for U.S. national security.

“The TPP is one way to guarantee that our bilateral ties already strong grow even stronger, while serving to reassure all of our allies that America’s commitment to the region is both deeply rooted and long-term,” Kerry told attendees at the Atlantic Council, a think tank in Washington.

For weeks, the White House has been lobbying skeptical Democrats to back a trade authorization bill that President Barack Obama needs to secure what would be the largest free trade agreement in history.

The campaign to support the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, or TPP,  has involved scores of meetings with lawmakers and high-profile TV interviews emphasizing the opportunity for middle-class job growth and stricter international environmental regulations — bread-and-butter issues for liberals. But this week, the administration tapped Secretary of State John Kerry to make a different argument: expanded trade in East Asia will be a boost for U.S. national security.

“The TPP is one way to guarantee that our bilateral ties already strong grow even stronger, while serving to reassure all of our allies that America’s commitment to the region is both deeply rooted and long-term,” Kerry told attendees at the Atlantic Council, a think tank in Washington.

Kerry heralded the emerging trade deal as a critical component of Obama’s “Asia rebalance” strategy that involves strengthening economic and military ties with Pacific allies in the face of China’s growing economic and military clout.

But that talking point faced skepticism from senior Democrats wary of previous administrations’ use of geopolitical arguments in favor of free trade.

“The secretary of state can say what he wants [but] they always make it a national security issue in the end,” Sen. Sherrod Brown, the top Democrat on the Senate Banking Committee, said Thursday in response to a question by Foreign Policy.

Brown, an Ohio native, noted that in 1993, President Bill Clinton sold the North American Free Trade Agreement on the promise of border security by way of reducing illegal immigration from Mexico. In 2005, President George W. Bush sold the Central American Free Trade Agreement on geopolitical concerns that growing anti-American sentiment in Latin America could accelerate if the U.S. failed to open up its markets.

“Now Obama’s doing it for China engagement,” said Brown.

Sen. Bob Casey (D-Penn.), who campaigned aggressively for Obama in 2008, also dismissed the national security argument in an interview with reporters. “Even if you could itemize a long list of benefits to TPP or any trade agreement, we can itemize a list of folks who don’t do so well,” he said. “This is a substantive debate about what happens to workers and wages.”

The two lawmakers, who have seen hundreds of thousands of factory jobs leave their home states in recent years, opposed “fast track” legislation that would allow the president to reach trade agreements that Congress could vote “yes” or “no” on, but not change.

Other Democrats, including Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, want stronger labor and environmental standards as well as a prohibition on the manipulation of currency by Asian countries. Labor unions, meanwhile, see blocking the bill as their top legislative priority. A senior labor official said in an interview that they felt they had no chance to block it in the Senate but had a measure of optimism in the House, where some Republicans — wary of handing Obama a win —  also oppose the deal.

Still, most Republicans back the fast track legislation, which has resulted in bills advancing in both houses and created a rare alliance between the White House and the GOP.

“So many people just love Barack Obama,” joked Brown.

On Wednesday, the Senate Finance Committee passed a fast track bill and on Thursday, the House Ways and Means Committee passed nearly identical legislation.

Both Houses are expected to vote on the bills in the coming weeks as U.S. negotiators try to complete the TPP trade deal with 11 other nations, including Australia, Japan, Chile, Canada, Mexico, Brunei and Vietnam.

Though momentum is on its side, it remains unclear if the White House can win over enough Democrats to overcome opposition from top Democrats on the Hill, which is why officials are ramping up their rhetoric.

“95 percent of the world’s consumers live beyond our borders,” Kerry said on Thursday. “If for some reason we decide not to do business with them, our economy absolutely will gradually wither and shrink, and we will see boarded-up windows and ‘going out of business’ signs from one side of America to another.”

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