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White House counters attacks on free trade deals

US Trade Representative Michael Froman at The World Economic Forum in Davos on January 25, 2014
US Trade Representative Michael Froman attends a session at The World Economic Forum in Davos on January 25, 2014

The White House moved Tuesday to fend off liberal criticism of its efforts to seal two new giant free trade pacts, saying the deals would benefit US workers and protect the environment.

Under attack from its core liberal support base over the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, President Barack Obama's key negotiator defended the efforts, but promised more transparency over the details of the talks.

"Trade, done right, is part of the solution, not part of the problem," US Trade Representative Michael Froman told an audience at the progressive think tank, the Center for American Progress.

"The question we face is not whether we can roll back the tide of globalization. It is whether we are going to shape it, or be shaped by it, whether we are going to do everything we can to ensure that it reflects our values, or let the values of others define it."

Obama is facing tough resistance from his own Democratic Party for pushing the two pacts -- one spanning the countries of the Pacific rim, excluding China, and the other with the European Union.

Last month, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, normally a steadfast White House ally, declared his opposition to giving Obama "Fast Track Authority" which would allow the president to conclude the negotiations largely without the constant involvement of Congress.

Clearly worried that the trade deals could hurt the party's chances in legislative elections in November, Reid suggested the White House not push the issue at the moment.

Labor, environmental and other groups have decried the two pacts, saying that they will lead to job losses and fewer protective steps for people and the environment.

But Froman insisted the new deals will not be like the much-assailed North American Free Trade Agreement of 1994, which offered little protection for workers and jobs while boosting trade.

"Some of the criticisms I hear of our agenda describe the state of the trade policy in 1994, not 2014," Froman said.

“They are criticisms of a trade policy this President has explicitly rejected."

In the current negotiations, he said, worker and environmental protections rank as high as tariff cuts in importance.

Though many details of the TPP and TTIP negotiations remain secret, Froman said the White House was already in consultations with Congress, industry and civil society groups over the talks.

And he said that a new body, the Public Interest Trade Advisory Committee, would be created to better include input from academics, non-governmental organizations and other groups in the talks.

"The world without TPP is a world with lower labor standards, weaker environmental protections and fewer opportunities for job growth in the US," he said.

"In my view, a world with TPP is a world that is in the interest of America's workers and America's families."

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