WASHINGTON – Negotiations lasted late into the evening and some members of Congress shouted and slapped the table in frustration as they argued over what would be included in the revised North American Free Trade Agreement.
Katherine Tai, chief trade adviser to the House’s powerful Ways and Means Committee, appeared unwavering to attendees as she helped work out compromises that would bring the Democrats on board in late 2019 to finalize the 2,082-page trade pact she negotiated support the Trump administration, the agreement between the United States, Mexico and Canada.
In negotiations during 2019, Ms. Tai calmly helped assemble an unlikely coalition in support of the trade deal, ultimately all of a sudden to allay concerns from business lobbyists and unions, forge Democratic-Republican ties, and convince Mexican officials to accept strict new oversight about their factories, say their former colleagues.
“Katherine was the glue that held us together,” said Representative Suzanne Bonamici, an Oregon Democrat who played a leading role in the negotiations. “When you end up with a product that is endorsed by the AFL-CIO to the Chamber of Commerce, that’s an unusual accomplishment.”
The Biden administration now hopes that Ms. Tai, its candidate for the United States Trade Representation, will act as consensus-builder and help bridge the Democratic Party’s divergent views on trade. Ms. Tai is expected to appear before the Senate Finance Committee Thursday morning for her confirmation hearing.
Ms. Tai has strong connections with Congress and supporters expect her nomination to go smoothly. However, if this is confirmed, it will face greater challenges, including working out the details of what the Biden government has called its “workers-oriented” approach to trade.
As a sales representative, Ms. Tai would be key in re-establishing alliances that were tense under former President Donald J. Trump. She would also be crucial in the formulation of the government’s China policy, an area in which it should draw on its experience to bring cases against Beijing to the World Trade Organization.
It would also take decisions on matters that divide the Democratic Party, such as: For example, whether the tariffs imposed by Mr Trump on foreign products should be maintained or abolished, and whether new foreign trade deals will help the United States compete globally or end up selling American workers in short.
Both the Biden administration and members of Congress see it as a priority to find consensus on trade issues, given the deep divisions that have haunted Democrats in the past.
During President Barack Obama’s tenure, the sales representative argued with 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 deal as key to fighting China. But progressive Democrats believed the pact would send more US jobs overseas, and fought the government along the way. Mr. Trump withdrew the United States from the agreement, and the rest of the pact countries signed it without the United States.
Democrats “spent a lot of time looking into what was going on,” said Senator Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat who supported the deal.
“I really felt that after the TPP, it was important to make sure that the trade talk starts and ends with how the typical American worker and consumer are affected,” he said.
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The result is the approach of the revised North American trade agreement USMCA – higher labor standards, stricter environmental regulations, and new mechanisms to ensure that the rules of trade agreements can be enforced – which the Democrats now refer to as the foundation of their new approach to trade.
“Katherine was very much involved in all of these discussions,” said Wyden. “She is a real coalition builder. And that was particularly important to me because of the entire TPP time. “
Sherrod Brown, a Democratic senator who spoke out against the TPP and then worked with Mr. Wyden on the USMCA’s rules for workers, said the Democratic Party had come together on this new policy of strict and enforceable trade rules.
“That is certainly a new policy for a democratic government,” he said. “But because the Democratic Party is en masse, we’re there.”
Mr Brown said he had argued with presidents of his own party about trading in the past, “including some not-very-nice exchanges. I’ve fought with their sales reps, and this is an entirely different era. “
“They will have trade policies that actually work for the workers,” he said.
The Biden administration has gone to great lengths to cement its ties with Congressional Democrats who influence trade. In addition to Ms. Tai’s nomination, key USTR employees were hired from the offices of Mr. Wyden and Mr. Brown, as well as former Democratic lawmakers such as Suzan DelBene of Washington, Jimmy Gomez of California, and John Lewis of Georgia.
However, that does not mean that Mr Biden’s trade policy will be uncontested. Despite the government’s strong ties to Congressional Democrats and unions, it has to offset the concerns of other factions such as big tech companies that are major donors or foreign policy experts who view free trade as a means of propping up America’s position in the multilateral system. These positions could be difficult to reconcile, trade experts say.
Some have also questioned what influence Ms. Tai could have on matters like China and tariffs since she is relatively new to the administration. Mr Biden has added several old contacts to his foreign policy team who have worked closely with him for years, including Antony J. Blinken, the Secretary of State; Jake Sullivan, the national security advisor; and Kurt Campbell, the best US diplomat for Asia.
But Ms. Tai’s supporters say that because of her deep knowledge and understanding of trade policy, she is likely to be an influential voice in trade. If confirmed, Ms. Tai would be the first Asian American woman of color to serve as a U.S. sales representative. Ms. Tai’s parents were born in China and moved to Taiwan before immigrating to the United States to work as government scholars.
Ms. Tai was born in the United States, but is fluent in Mandarin and lived and worked as a teacher in China in the late 1990s. She received a BA from Yale University and a law degree from Harvard Law School, then worked as an associate for several Washington law firms and as an assistant to two district judges.
From 2007 to 2014, Ms. Tai worked for the United States Trade Representative’s Office, where she successfully prosecuted several cases of Chinese trade practices at the World Trade Organization, including a challenge to China’s restrictions on the export of rare earth minerals.
When she was hired, the USTR’s office was trying to analyze a particular Chinese legal measure and gave it to Ms. Tai to translate for her interview, said Claire Reade, a former USTR China affairs assistant, is now a senior Counsel at Arnold & Porter. “We received a second expert opinion for free,” she said.
In the Obama administration and in her work to reach consensus on the North American trade deal, Ms. Tai demonstrated a number of skills that will help her thrive as a trade agent, Ms. Reade said – leadership and initiative, political and diplomatic skills to guide the government process, a good instinct for reading people and a broad understanding of complex trade issues.
“She really went through hellfire in her work and came out on the other side – which means, as I say, she shouldn’t be underestimated,” said Ms. Reade.