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Biden Looks to a Consensus Builder to Heal a Democratic Rift on Trade


WASHINGTON — The negotiations lasted late into the evening, leaving some members of Congress shouting and pounding the table in frustration as they fought over what would be included in the revised North American Free Trade Agreement.

Katherine Tai, the chief trade counsel to Congress’s powerful Ways and Means Committee, appeared unflappable to those in the room as she helped to hammer out compromises that would ultimately bring Democrats on board in late 2019 to support the 2,082-page trade pact negotiated by the Trump administration, the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement.

In negotiations through the course of 2019, Ms. Tai calmly helped to assemble an unlikely coalition to support the trade deal, ultimately mollifying the concerns of both business lobbyists and labor unions, forging ties between Democrats and Republicans, and helping to persuade Mexican officials to accept strict new oversight of their factories, her former colleagues say.

“Katherine was the glue that held us together,” said Representative Suzanne Bonamici, a Democrat from Oregon who played a leading role in the negotiations. “If you end up with a product that has support from the A.F.L.-C.I.O. to the Chamber of Commerce, that is an unusual feat.”

The Biden administration is now pinning its hopes on Ms. Tai, its nominee for United States Trade Representative, to serve as a consensus builder and help bridge the Democratic Party’s varying views on trade. Ms. Tai is scheduled to appear for her confirmation hearing on Thursday morning before the Senate Finance Committee.

Ms. Tai has strong connections in Congress, and supporters expect her nomination to proceed smoothly. But if confirmed, she will face bigger challenges, including filling in the details of what the Biden administration has called its “worker-focused” trade approach.

As trade representative, Ms. Tai will be a key player in restoring alliances strained under former President Donald J. Trump, as well as formulating the administration’s China policy, where she is expected to draw on prior experience bringing cases against China at the World Trade Organization.

She will also take charge on decisions on matters that divide the Democratic Party, like whether to keep or scrap the tariffs Mr. Trump imposed on foreign products, and whether new foreign trade deals will help the United States compete globally or end up selling American workers short.

Both the Biden administration and members of Congress see finding consensus on trade issues as paramount, given the deep divisions that dogged Democrats in the past.

During the Obama administration, the United States Trade Representative sparred with labor unions and many Democratic lawmakers over the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade pact between countries along the Pacific Rim.

Mr. Obama and his supporters saw the agreement as key to countering China. But progressive Democrats believed the pact would send more U.S. jobs offshore, and fought the Obama administration on its passage. Mr. Trump withdrew the United States from the deal, and the remaining countries in the pact went on to sign it without the United States.

Democrats “spent a lot of time drilling down on what happened,” said Ron Wyden, a Democratic senator from Oregon who supported the agreement.

“I really felt that it was important post-T.P.P. to make sure that the trade conversation started and stopped with how the typical American worker and the typical American consumer would be affected,” he said.

What resulted, he said, was the approach in the revised North American trade deal, U.S.M.C.A. — higher labor standards, tighter environment regulation and new mechanisms to ensure that the rules of trade agreements can be enforced — which Democrats now describe as the bedrock of their new approach to trade.

“Katherine was very much involved in all of those discussions,” Mr. Wyden said. “She’s a real coalition…



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