President Barack Obama's drive for a massive new trade deal with Pacific Rim nations is creating political theater beyond the usual party-line divisions.
On Long Island, labor unions -- mostly presumed to be constituents of the Democratic Party -- have been slamming the Democratic White House push for unilateral authority to craft a Trans-Pacific Partnership.
That authority is called "fast-track," which Congress granted for past trade agreements. Under its terms, the House and Senate may only accept or reject a completed agreement without revising it.
"Fast-track," which Obama and lawmakers are seeking to negotiate, is drawing urgent opposition from such groups as the Long Island Federation of Labor, which claims 250,000 members. The group has said the measure would "create a process to ram the agreement through Congress" and "surrenders Congress' constitutional rights with regard to trade policy."
The trade pact itself -- being negotiated behind closed doors with 11 other nations -- "would destroy jobs, eliminate regulatory protections, and allow international trade tribunals to overturn American laws," warned the L.I. "Fed," which promotes the AFL-CIO's political platform.
Roger Clayman, the group's executive director, cited the 20-plus years that followed approval of the North American Free Trade Agreement -- initiated under President George H.W. Bush and completed under President Bill Clinton.
"These trade agreements serve corporate interests, not national interests," Clayman said.
At one time, Obama sounded as if he'd agree. During the 2008 Democratic primaries, Obama worked to tie Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton to the damaging impact of NAFTA as widely perceived in the Midwest.
She sought to shake off that link to the Clinton "free trade" policy -- and might have another try at doing so if she runs again next year. Both candidates said at the time they'd seek to "renegotiate" NAFTA.
At this point, some Republicans oppose fast-track -- but certainly not all. Conservative columnist George F. Will even suggested last week that it may be up to the GOP to "rescue" Obama's "best idea" -- and noted how crucial congressional Republicans were in enacting NAFTA.
Like many other area House Democrats, ex-Rep. Tim Bishop opposed a Pacific-pact fast-track. His successor, Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley), said Tuesday in a statement, "I will not support or oppose trade legislation that hasn't yet been introduced."
Rep. Greg Meeks (D-Queens) meanwhile, has formed the "Friends of the Trans-Pacific Partnership Caucus." The lobbying group, Trade Benefits America, has been arguing for such pacts as a benefit to the U.S. economy.
Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) voted in 2011 for U.S. trade pacts with South Korea and Panama, the impact of which is still debated. Now, Schumer is among those warning that China's currency manipulations -- which give an edge to Chinese goods in the United States -- should be addressed before or when a Trans-Pacific pact is presented.
Some Long Islanders are watching intently. "This is NAFTA on steroids," said a fast-track critic, James Wilkie of Brookhaven, a member of Steamfitters Local Union 638. "It's no joke. It's a big deal. It's about our national sovereignty."