Trade Telltale

Since the “Great Compromise” on trade policy between the administration and Congress last spring, I have been outspokenly skeptical about prospects for further trade liberalization before 2009.  In that deal, the administration bowed to the wishes of Congressional Democrats to include enforceable labor and environmental provisions in pending and prospective trade agreements. 

For that accommodation, the Congressional leadership was supposed to help secure passage of the pending bilateral agreements with Peru, Panama, Colombia, and Korea.  Almost immediately, though, the leadership voiced additional concerns about Colombia and Korea, which are widely considered to be very long-shots at best.

But after visiting Peru last month and getting his own fingerprints on the final details of the deal, House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Charles Rangel of New York returned home and voiced his support for the agreement.  And, it appears, there is support for the Peru agreement among members of Ways and Means and Senate Finance.  Several Congressional staffers have suggested that if the Peru vote garners relatively strong Democratic support, there may be hope for the others.

The problem, however, is that the House Democratic Caucus may not be prepared to follow.  Remember all of those freshman Democrats who campaigned in ’06 on an anti-trade message?  It seems they won’t go quietly into the night.  Whereas the veteran Democratic trade leadership may be inclined to use protectionist rhetoric to shift the terms of the trade debate in their favor, the new blood in their caucus is more inclined to believe it.  In that regard, the Rangels and Levins and Baucuses on the Hill (guys that probably know better) have helped create a potential Frankenstein.

On Friday, rank and file Democrats addressed a letter ($) to their Caucus Chairman, Rahm Emanuel of Illinois, asking that the next caucus meeting be devoted to the U.S.-Peru Agreement.  The letter notes that there isn’t much support for the agreement among Democrats and that the Ways and Means Committee markup scheduled for tomorrow will prove divisive.

There were only seven signatories to the letter and it is unclear how representative it is of Democratic sentiments.  But if the topic proves divisive and rancorous – a development Nancy Pelosi wants to avoid – it will be interesting to see which side the House Speaker chooses to rein in.  The outcome of this potential impasse will tell much about the direction Democrats want to go on trade.