Democrats pledge joint stance on global trade

Original Publication Date: 
8 November, 2006

As if to pre-empt the warnings that more Democrats meant more protectionism, newly powerful Democratic lawmakers were straight out of the traps yesterday promising bipartisan co-operation on international trade.

But the big question remaining is whether they can bring with them the rest of the congressional Democrats and the recalcitrant farm lobby, whose agreement is needed for renewed progress in global trade talks.

Charles Rangel, the new chairman of the House ways and means committee, said: "In order to restore bipartisanship, Democrats and Republicans will have to come to the table and identify 'low-hanging fruit', or policies that we can deal with together."

Democratic strategists suggested that a broad-brush deal worked out with Susan Schwab, US trade representative, meant pending bilateral deals with Peru and Colombia, and any agreement with South Korea that arose from current talks, would be likely to receive enough bipartisan support to pass if concerns over labour standards were addressed.

Mr Rangel and Max Baucus, the senior Democrat on the Senate finance committee who will become chairman if the Senate also changes hands, have a record of supporting trade liberalisation, at least relative to other Democrats on Capitol Hill. But support by their colleagues, never particularly strong, has dissipated over recent years. Concerns about globalisation and jobs, and particularly the deepening partisan divide in the House of Representatives, have driven many Democrats into the "Nay" columns when trade bills come up for a vote.

Even a deal with the tiny Gulf state of Oman, which poses no competitive threat to US companies or workers, passed in the House in July with just a slender majority of 16. Democratic strategists are also planning to adopt a more protectionist stance on relations with China.

As for a resumption of the Doha round of WTO global trade talks, the Democrats' gains are likely to diminish the slim hopes of a swift resurrection. Congressional Democrats suggested yesterday that they might vote for an extension of trade promotion authority - the White House's power to negotiate entire trade deals - if there were a strong framework Doha deal in place.

But progress in the talks will require the US to make further offers to cut farm subsidies. The new chairman of the House agricultural committee will be Collin Peterson, a Minnesota Democrat in a corn and sugarbeet farming district who strongly supports the current system of payments to farmers.

Annoying rural voters by cutting farm support could worry Democrats across the political spectrum, given the party's desire to regain a foothold in the conservative rural "red states".

Mr Rangel made a nod to the demands of unions that bilateral trade deals include strong labour standards, saying: "We'll find ways to involve more members on issues like trade policy so we can show the American people that expanded trade doesn't always have to mean the loss of good paying jobs here at home."

Larry Cohen, president of the Communications Workers Union, promised "to go to war" with the Democratic leadership if the compromise led to "inadequate" trade deals being approved with countries such as Colombia, Peru and South Korea.