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Senator Obama vs. President Obama on Trade

Portman's currency amendment to the fast-track trade bill faces a veto threat. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
Portman's currency amendment to the fast-track trade bill faces a veto threat. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Not long after the administration went public with a veto threat against his currency manipulation trade amendment, Sen. Rob Portman took to the floor to highlight President Barack Obama’s flip-flop on the issue.  

“The president in the past has spoken articulately and vociferously against currency manipulation. His statements have been very clear: He not only thinks it’s wrong, he thinks it must be enforced. and so I would find it surprising that he wouldn’t be willing to move forward on this,” the Ohio Republican said.  

Portman, a former U.S. trade representative, said that while presidents generally heed veto recommendations from their top lieutenants (Treasury Secretary Jacob J. Lew, in this case), he hoped this could be different if a bill containing the enforceable currency language reached the Oval Office. He also disputed the idea that the amendment he drafted with fellow Finance member Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., would actually poison the well.  

“Is it a poison pill because of the House? I again think it actually adds votes. Why wouldn’t it? Is it a poison pill in terms of the administration? I hope not, and I can’t believe it would be,” said Portman. “This is a priority for the president to get Trade Promotion Authority done, and I agree with him.”  

Portman has some evidence on his side when talking about Obama’s views on currency manipulation, particularly with respect to its role in trade negotiations. Back in 2007, when Obama was the junior senator from Illinois, he sent a letter to Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson regarding the unwillingness of President Gorge W. Bush’s administration to designate China as a currency manipulator.  

A copy of that letter was back in circulation at the Capitol on Tuesday:

Dear Secretary Paulson,

The People’s Republic of China has manipulated its currency for years in order to gain an unfair advantage over the United States in trade. Unfortunately, the Administration has failed to effectively challenge or change China’s behavior. And today, the Department of the Treasury has refused yet again to declare that China is manipulating its currency. I call on the Treasury Department to reconsider today’s decision.

Your department’s refusal to take action against China raises serious questions about the Administration’s commitment to protecting the interests of American businesses and American workers. At least partially as a result of the Administration’s failure to address Chinese currency manipulation, the U.S. imported more than $232 billion in goods from China than we sold to it last year. That constitutes an annual growth in the imbalance in trade of 73 percent.

Refusing to acknowledge the problem will not make it go away. As a result, I will work with colleagues in the Congress to force action and strengthen the ability of Americans losing out from Chinese currency manipulation to bring forward complaints for remedy through increased duties on Chinese goods.

The Administration’s refusal to take strong action against China’s currency manipulation will also make it more difficult to obtain congressional approval for renewed Trade Promotion Authority, as well as additional trade agreements. Treasury’s refusal even to acknowledge the costs of Chinese currency manipulation, justifies the fear of many Americans that this Administration lacks the will to stand up against trade abuses and labor or environmental violations that create an unfair playing field for American workers.

As a result, I will work with my colleagues in the Senate to ensure that any trade agreement brought before the Congress is measured not against Administration commitments but instead against the rights of Americans to protection from unfair trade practices including currency manipulation and the violation of international labor and environmental standards.

Again, I urge you to reconsider today’s decision not to take action against China for currency manipulation. Thank you.


Barack Obama
United States Senator

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