Rep. Mike Thompson faces a difficult and pressure-packed vote Thursday as he must decide whether or not to support President Barack Obama’s trade agenda in a debate that has created huge divisions within the Democratic Party.
As a member of the House Ways and Means Committee, the St. Helena Democrat will have to vote on so-called “fast-track” trade legislation that will make it much easier for congressional approval of future trade agreements, such as a forthcoming Asia-Pacific pact. Under the procedure, lawmakers can only vote to approve or disapprove trade deals and cannot offer amendments nor filibuster.
The pending vote has created an unusual alliance as Obama is lobbying vigorously for the legislation with the help of congressional Republicans, such as Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., who has sponsored the bill and is chairman of the Ways and Means Committee. Sens. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, have similar legislation that the Senate will consider.
But key Democrats such as Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., have spoken out against the bill, allied with those in the labor and environmental movement who contend the legislation will result in a “NAFTA on steroids” and will lead to an erosion of environmental standards and loss of jobs. Rep. Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, has already come out in vocal opposition.
The debate has reopened old wounds that date back to the Clinton administration between Democratic populists and those in the party who are more business oriented. During a Tuesday appearance on MSNBC’s “Hardball” program, Obama told host Chris Matthews that “I love Elizabeth (Warren). We’re allies on a whole host of issues. But she’s wrong on this.”
Thompson remains uncommitted on the bill, said spokesman Austin Vevurka, and will participate in a Wednesday hearing on the legislation seeking additional input. The congressman wants to see what, if any, amendments are proposed during the Thursday markup of the bill that could ameliorate potential concerns.
In remarks last month, Thompson said he wanted to grow exports because it means more jobs, but cautioned that any trade agreement shouldn’t be “at the expense of workers here” nor “a race to the bottom” in terms of overlooking worker health and safety or environmental concerns in other countries.
In 2001, Thompson voted against a fast-track trade bill that squeaked by in the House on a 215-214 vote.
Thompson has become a focal point of the lobbying as those on both sides try to persuade him, especially by focusing on the local impact to future trade pacts. Most notably, the Obama administration will a likely present to Congress the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a pact among 11 other countries in the Asia-Pacific region designed to lower trade barriers and establish new frameworks for labor, environmental and intellectual property agreements. U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman visited Sonoma County last month as part of an attempt to influence Thompson to vote “yes” on the legislation.
The wine industry largely supports the legislation, contending that lower trade barriers will boost sales and create jobs. The Wine Institute, which represents California vintners, notes in its support of the Ryan bill that trade agreements since 1989 have helped increase U.S. wine exports worldwide from $98 million to almost $1.5 billion. Thompson is co-chairman of the Congressional Wine Caucus.
The industry is especially interested in the Trans-Pacific Partnership because of the opportunity in Japan, which was the third-largest market for American wine last year at $88 million. It contends the Trans-Pacific Partnership will lower import duties to U.S. wine in Japan and increase sales.