January 8, 2015 / 5:04 AM / 5 years ago

U.S. free trade critics, supporters kick off battle for public opinion

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Supporters and critics of free trade are readying for a bitter battle this year over major free trade deals and legislation to fast-track trade agreements through the U.S. Congress.

Unions, progressive lawmakers, consumer advocates, environmentalists, and social justice and human rights lobbyists kicked off a campaign on Thursday to oppose fast-track, which would allow Congress a yes-or-no vote on trade deals in exchange for setting negotiating goals.

“This coalition exists because trade deals affect everybody,” Representative Rosa DeLauro, a Democrat of Connecticut, told a news conference, as she predicted defeat for fast-track legislation, which is expected to be introduced early this year.

But the Obama administration and business groups, which see the Republican-controlled Congress as the best chance in years for a trade agenda encompassing deals worth nearly $500 billion a year to the global economy, are confident of victory.

In a speech next Wednesday, U.S. Chamber of Commerce President Thomas Donohue will name fast-track, or trade promotion authority, as a priority for the group, which represents more than 3 million American companies. The Business Roundtable and National Association of Manufacturers are lobbying too.

“We are going to be putting a major push, a major campaign, behind getting trade promotion done as soon as possible,” said the chamber’s senior international policy director, Christopher Wenk. “It’s going to be around the clock.”

Senior officials are reaching out to Democrats on trade, preparing a snapshot for each state spelling out how each will gain under the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership, with a particular focus on labor and environmental protections, a key concern for many party members.

“TPP will be the most progressive trade agreement in history,” a U.S. Trade Representative spokesman said.

According to a Reuters tally, 150 Democratic and 27 Republican members of the 435-seat House of Representatives have either voted against fast-track in the past or publicly opposed it through letters or statements.

Social media, newspaper advertisements and opinion pieces, pamphlets, face-to-face meetings and rallies will be used by both sides as the United States moves to complete the TPP and make progress on the proposed Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership with Europe.

Many trade experts say fast-track is key to closing those deals, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said on Wednesday that Republicans planned to move quickly with legislation. He called on President Barack Obama to stand up to opponents, including unions, an important power base for many Democrats.

Unions are circulating a fast-track petition and plan to mobilize members to write and telephone members of Congress to tell them they think free trade is bad for jobs.

“The AFL-CIO doesn’t just oppose fast track, we’re going to fight actively to kill it,” said Richard Trumka, president of the American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Organizations, which represents 12.5 million workers.

Reporting by Krista Hughes; Editing by Steve Orlofsky and Leslie Adler

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