Washington – Rep. Jim Himes has emerged as a key, swing vote as President Obama struggles to win congressional support for a new trade pact with 11 other nations that ring the Pacific Ocean.
Himes, D-4th District, is among a handful of Democrats who say they are undecided on how they will vote on the Trans-Pacific Partnership or on giving the president “fast-track” or trade promotion authority to negotiate an agreement that Congress can approve or reject but not change.
Himes is the only member of Connecticut’s all-Democratic congressional delegation who is on the fence on the issue. All the other members have said they oppose giving Obama fast-track authority.
Himes is “our main target since he’s still undecided,” said David Dal Zin, spokesman for the Connecticut AFL-CIO.
For organized labor, the Trans-Pacific Partnership would speed the loss of American jobs overseas and weaken U.S. environmental and safety laws. To the American business community, including key Connecticut employers like General Electric and United Technologies Corp., the TPP would facilitate access to a lucrative and growing market.
Himes, who often breaks with the delegation on financial issues, said he’s taking a deliberative approach to the trade agreement because a lot is at stake.
“If the Trans-Pacific Partnership is really bad, that’s one story, and if it isn’t, that’s another story,” he said. “There are very few issues as complex as a trade agreement.”
He said he’s concerned about some provisions the final trade pact may contain, including limiting the availability of low-cost generic drugs in some Pacific Rim nations if the trade pact adopts longer U.S. protections for pharmaceutical companies.
On the other hand, he said, he’s also “debunked” some myths opponents of the trade pact have spread, including one that maintains members of Congress won’t be able to read the final agreement before they are required to vote on it.
“It will have months and months of scrutiny,” he said.
Himes’ vote on the issue has become increasingly important because, although most House Republicans support the proposed trade pact, not all do. House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, needs some Democratic support to win approval of the fast-track bill. TPP supporters say the fast-track restrictions barring amendments and allowing a vote only on the final agreement are needed to be able to negotiate a deal.
Obama is also facing trouble in the Senate.
This week, with the support of Connecticut Sens. Richard Blumenthal and Chris Murphy, Senate Democrats blocked a vote on the fast-track bill.
Blumenthal said he voted to filibuster the fast-track bill “because it would short-circuit congressional consideration of the largest trade deal ever negotiated.”
To try to break the logjam, Senate Majority Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. and Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., announced a plan Wednesday that would allow votes on legislation Democrats have been demanding. One bill would address China’s alleged manipulation of its currency to make its exports cheaper.
China, however, is not a party to the TPP negotiations.
The other bill offered in the deal would help American workers who lose their jobs when the plants they work in move overseas.
In the House, Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-3rd District, has emerged as a leading opponent of the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the fast-track bill.
She can count on support from Reps. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District; John Larson, D-1st District; and Elizabeth Esty, D-5th District.
At a press conference Wednesday of Democrats opposed to the trade pact, Courtney said a big concern is currency manipulation, and the threat TPP trading partners will cheapen their currency to gain an unfair trade advantage.
“It’s almost political malpractice for a member of Congress to look the other way on this issue,” Courtney said.
DeLauro said the president and his advisers “underestimated the depth of feeling” among House Democrats who want to be engaged to ensure the trade deal protects workers and the environment.
“Now there is a frenetic attempt to court those who are undecided,” she said.
But DeLauro hasn’ t been able to nudge Himes. Nor has Obama.
A co-chairman of the moderate, business-friendly “New Democrat Coalition,” Himes was invited with other centrists Democrats to the White House so Obama could lobby them face-to-face to support the trade pact.
Himes said the president “made a good case” for the TPP, “but also talked politics.”
“A vote for the TPP can cause trouble with some Democratic constituencies,” Himes said. “The president made it clear the he would stand by Democrats who voted for it.”
Lori Pelletier, head of the Connecticut AFL-CIO , has lobbied Himes both in Washington and in his Fairfield County-based congressional district to oppose the TPP.
She says she takes him at his word that he’s conflicted.
“I really think he is struggling,” she said.
To Pelletier, Himes shares the AFL-CIO’s “common core values” and concerns about the trade pact’s impact on workers and the environment.
“But he’s feeling a lot of pressure from the administration,” she said.
To ratchet up the pressure, the White House released state-by-state statistics this week touting the benefits of free trade. It said Connecticut had $4.6 billion in trade with prospective TPP partners last year, and that 29 percent of goods exported from Connecticut went to TPP countries. Trade overall supported more than 75,000 jobs in the state, the White House said.
Himes is also feeling pressure from major employers in his district pressing for approval of the TPP. Himes said he met last week with executives of a mineral company in his district who told hin they could increase their business by $40 million “immediately” if the TPP is approved.
But Himes said he’s also met recently with representatives of the United Auto Workers and the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers who are trying to prod him in the opposite direction.
He did not rule out voting for the fast-track bill to allow a final agreement to be negotiated and sent to Congress for an up-or-down vote.
“The president can’t sign a completed TPP until it’s made public for at least 60 days, and there will be plenty of hearings and time for Congress to consider it,” Himes said.