WASHINGTON — House Speaker Nancy Pelosi faces another stern test of her political skills this week as she struggles to win over members of her party unhappy with a new trade policy that senior Democrats brokered with the Bush administration.
The issue, which provokes deep-seated divisions among Democrats, is expected to prompt tough questions at a party caucus Tuesday for Pelosi (D-San Francisco) and other party leaders who signed off on the deal.
Many Democrats have historically supported free trade, particularly centrists, but a growing number -- including many freshmen whose victories gave Democrats control of the House for the first time in 40 years -- argue that recent trade agreements cost U.S. jobs.
The new policy would apply to pending pacts with Colombia, South Korea, Panama and Peru, requiring foreign trade partners to recognize international labor standards and some environmental protections.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday May 15, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 36 words Type of Material: Correction
Trade policy: An article in Section A on Sunday about Democrats' disagreements over U.S. trade policy misspelled the last name of a spokesman for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco). He is Brendan Daly, not Daley.
Critics of recent trade agreements have called for such provisions, which the Bush administration has often resisted. But unhappy Democratic lawmakers -- joined by key labor unions and environmentalists -- complain that the deal Pelosi approved does not go far enough and compromises too much with the White House.
In a sign of the unrest, trade was added to the caucus agenda through a petition letter filed Thursday by six House members concerned about the new policy, including Rep. Linda T. Sanchez (D-Lakewood), a former labor lawyer.
Pelosi has displayed considerable skill in guiding her fractious party, especially in the debate over ending the Iraq war.
But the dispute over trade policy may prove unusually difficult, spotlighting as it does concerns that run deep among Democratic voters who have seen millions of jobs in manufacturing and other sectors disappear in recent years, and consider them casualties of outsourcing and overseas competition.
By insisting that U.S. trading partners adhere to stricter labor and environmental standards that raise domestic production costs, advocates say they could level the playing field in the increasingly global economy.
Several labor unions and environmental groups condemned the new trade policy, including the United Steelworkers and Change to Win, while others such as the AFL-CIO offered only qualified support.
Many Democrats, particularly freshmen who promised voters they would change Bush trade policies, complained that Pelosi compromised too much but also that her announcement of the deal Thursday took them by surprise, included few details and angered key constituents.
The new policy would apply to future trade agreements, and was presented as a means to pass the Panama and Peru agreements and move forward on negotiating the more nettlesome agreements with South Korea and Colombia.
Rep. Betty Sutton (D-Ohio), a labor lawyer who campaigned on a "fair trade" platform and became one of the freshman class leaders, said a majority of the caucus, including many freshmen, opposes the new policy and is demanding more details.
"There is a commitment shared with a majority of our caucus that we truly develop a new trade model, one the American people expected us to deliver when they put us in the majority," Sutton said.
Pelosi realizes the extent of opposition to the policy, spokesman Brendan Daley said, and was trying to get more information about the plan to disgruntled members late Friday. "Once they see the details, I think people will be supportive," Daley said.
He stressed that the new policy does not mean senior Democrats intend to push for reauthorization of "fast track" trade negotiating authority, which would allow Bush to speed agreements through Congress without amendments, something Pelosi has opposed.
Daley said that in making her case to the caucus, Pelosi plans to stand on her record as a free trade foe who voted against fast track in 2002 and "led the charge" against normalizing trade with China.
Many union leaders expressed concerns about the new policy last week, including AFL-CIO President John Sweeney and Teamsters President James P. Hoffa.