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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.

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“This is critical for the California wine industry, since our competitors from Chile and Australia have already established free trade agreements with Japan, and thus have a duty advantage over California wines,” the institute notes in a statement.

But Thompson has heard from local opponents representing the environmental and labor organizations, who have urged his constituents to email, phone and write letters to his office. They are reminding Thompson of the net 1 million U.S. jobs that critics claim were lost under the 1993 North American Free Trade Agreement with Mexico and Canada.

“It’s no good if you have wine to sell, if people can’t afford to buy wine,” said Lisa Maldonado, executive director of the North Bay Labor Council.

In particular, labor opponents are focusing on the unfair advantage that a New Zealand dairy exporter, Fonterra, could have under the Trans-Pacific Partnership because it receives support from that country’s government, said Doug Bloch, political director for the Teamsters Joint Council 7, which represents 100,000 members in Northern California and Nevada. Those affected members include 150 employees at the Clover Stornetta Farms Inc. plant in Petaluma.

“They are itching to get into North America,” Bloch said of Fonterra, which is the world’s largest dairy exporter. He also complained that the pact would not open American milk exports to the lucrative Japanese market.

In addition, opponents like Warren also are seizing on language likely to be included on the Asia-Pacific trade pact that would allow foreign corporations to challenge U.S. regulations before an international tribunal, which could potentially erode California’s tough environmental laws.

“It’s bad enough that fossil fuel barons and GOP climate-deniers succeeded in removing any provisions on global warming from the (Trans-Pacific Partnership). What’s worse, dirty energy companies will use the new trade rules to challenge state and local laws that they don’t like,” Huffman wrote to supporters last week.

To help assuage fears, Democrats like Wyden have pointed to new features on the fast-track bill such as requiring trading partners to adopt and maintain core international labor and environmental standards, with trade sanctions for noncompliance. It also is packaged with new assistance for workers who lose their jobs under future trade pacts.

Another undecided lawmaker is House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-San Francisco, who has said she wants “to find a path to ‘yes’” for the fast-track bill and Asia-Pacific trade pact.

You can reach Staff Writer Bill Swindell at 521-5223 or bill.swindell@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @BillSwindell.

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