House Democrats face party concern on trade deal

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Democratic leaders in the U.S. House of Representatives tried to quell party concerns on Tuesday about a trade policy deal reached earlier this month with the Bush administration.

House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Charles Rangel introduces the Chairman of the Federal Reserve Ben Bernanke during a luncheon hosted by the National Italian American Foundation in New York November 28, 2006. Democratic leaders in the House of Representatives tried to quell party concerns on Tuesday about a trade policy deal reached earlier this month with the Bush administration. REUTERS/Chip East

“The more people find out what’s in it, I’m confident that ... it’s going to work out,” House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Charles Rangel, a New York Democrat, told reporters after a meeting with other House Democrats.

“The unhappiness is concentrated, but fortunately it’s a small group,” Rangel said.

Rangel was the lead Democratic negotiator in talks with the Bush administration and Republican lawmakers aimed at clearing the way for approval of free trade pacts with Peru and Panama.

After months of closed-door negotiations, the deal reached two weeks ago in House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office included a long-time Democratic party demand for labor and environmental provisions enforced through trade sanctions, the same as for commercial provisions of the pact.

The deal also would apply to pacts with Colombia and South Korea, but those agreements face additional obstacles that could prevent them from becoming law.

However, a number of Democratic lawmakers -- such as Rep. Marcy Kaptur of Ohio, Rep. Brad Sherman of California and Rep. Michael Michaud of Maine -- have complained that Rangel ignored broader trade concerns of House Democrats.

“I would say that at least half (of the House Democrats), if not more, share my view,” Kaptur told reporters after a Democratic party meeting on Tuesday.

“Any improvement is an improvement, but we are working toward a new trade model for our country and we want to have a discussion on that,” she said.

Kaptur said she would urge Pelosi to establish a special House working group on trade so that policy is not decided completely within the confines of Rangel’s committee.

Rangel acknowledged many Democrats who campaigned against trade in last year’s election were “hurt” when the deal was struck without consulting their views.

He defended the secretive negotiating process as necessary to reaching a final agreement, but also said the deal only establishes policy for future trade agreements.

It doesn’t bind any Democrat to voting for a specific agreement, or require party members to support renewal of the White House’s trade promotion authority, Rangel said.

“I don’t know (how many Democrats will support trade deals with the policy changes) ... I know it will be a hell of a lot more than we had in the past,” Rangel said.

After a decade of fighting for stronger labor and environmental provision in trade pact, Democrats got everything they asked for from the Bush administration, said House Trade Subcommittee Chairman Sander Levin, a Michigan Democrat.