Durbin joins Reid, opposes fast-track trade deals

Democrats' stand leaves 2 huge plans up in air

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 Dick Durbin

"I have always been critical and skeptical of fast-tracking," U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin said. (Nancy Stone, Chicago Tribune)

WASHINGTON

— The U.S. Senate's top Democrat recently alarmed big business when he announced he would oppose a White House plan to "fast-track" trade deals.

In a wide-ranging interview at the U.S. Capitol, the Senate's No. 2 ranking Democrat, Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, stood in lock step with his chamber's leader, Sen. Harry Reid.

Their opposition has placed two of the largest free-trade deals in U.S. history — one with the European Union and the other with Asian and Latin American countries — in limbo as the White House says it needs the speedy authority to gain concessions from other countries and finalize the pacts.

"I have always been critical and skeptical of fast-tracking," Durbin said. "It is a take-it-or-leave-it approach to trade agreements which really deals members of Congress and their concerns out of the picture."

And what does that mean for the agreements themselves, which is what business really cares about?

"I think Harry Reid's statement was unequivocal, and that makes it very unlikely the president will be able to move this this year," Durbin said.

The Pacific Rim pact that administration officials are negotiating in secret is so massive it will govern about 40 percent of U.S. imports and exports and more than a quarter of world trade. Called the Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP, it is expected to eliminate tariffs and barriers, which, according to one critic, former U.S. Rep. David Bonior, will "eliminate many of the risks that make firms think twice about moving production to low-wage countries."

"The result is downward pressure on middle-class wages as manufacturing workers are forced to compete with imports made by poorly paid workers abroad," Bonior wrote in a New York Times op-ed.

On the other end, what makes the TPP deal unique is that it's about much more than importing a certain amount of goods at certain prices. It is expected to cover a broad range of regulatory and legal issues, with the United States pushing for stronger copyright protections for music and film, and patent protections for intellectual property, according to The Washington Post, citing documents leaked by WikiLeaks.

Durbin said he has heard from Boeing, Caterpillar and other major Illinois exporters on the issue. Meanwhile, "many people who picket me say, 'Vote against it.' And I'll go up to them and say, 'What part do you disagree with?' And they'll say, 'Fast-track.' And I'll say, 'No, that's the process. What substantive part do you disagree with?' And they'll say, 'We don't know because we don't know what it's in it.' And that's the reality most of us face."

Durbin also addressed two local business issues: The forthcoming competition for the Obama presidential library and a joint effort by University of Illinois and Chicago officials to land a multimillion-dollar federal grant to establish a digital manufacturing institute here.

"The decision's supposed to be made soon, even this month," Durbin said of the Department of Defense manufacturing grant. "We're hoping to emerge a winner. But there's hardly an office you can think of in Washington involved in this that I haven't reached out to personally or met with personally to move this along. ... I thought it was going to be done two months ago. I'm nervous about it until it's done."

And will Chicago have one unified bid for the presidential library?

"There are several within the city of Chicago who have approached me," he said. "And it would be easier if we only had one site, an easier political decision for the White House to make. But I can't tell you that anybody's talked about stepping back at this point."

Tom Pritzker talks Iraq

The most prominent piece of Tom Pritzker's multibillion-dollar investment portfolio is the hotel chain Hyatt, where he is chairman.

And the least-known would have to be Berth 14 at the Al-Maqal port in Basra, Iraq.

There, on the Shatt al-Arab River, a business unit of North America Western Asia Holdings, of which Pritzker is chairman, leases and operates the berth, which it opened last year. Under the 10-year privatization agreement, the subsidiary constructed a modern container-shipping operation (cranes, a yard to store cargo, etc.) at the berth, which has been largely inoperable since the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s.

At a recent Chicago Council on Global Affairs event, Pritzker described the port project as "the most wonderful thing that I'm doing, because of the passion in that community around what we're doing."

Asked about the potential for corruption in such infrastructure projects, Pritzker called the issue "a vexatious problem" and "pervasive in most of the countries in the world." He repeated that "we just don't play" in that vein and said his unwillingness to pay bribes has cost his companies business and placed them at "a competitive disadvantage." In Iraq in particular, he said, he was "very worried about it" and has "set up processes till the cows come home." Yet, so far, so good.

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