WASHINGTON (AP) — Running flat out for a new term at home and tiptoeing through tough issues in the Capitol, Ron Wyden brags that he’s “different, like Oregon.”
Not everyone sees that as a good thing, though, at least in the Senate. In the space of just a few hours this week, Wyden managed to offend Republicans and Democrats alike over legislation he co-authored permitting President Barack Obama to cut “fast-track” trade deals that Congress could approve or reject, but not change.
It’s part of Wyden’s effort to show he’s for trade, against government intrusion and pragmatic — even if it means embarrassing his president, irking his colleagues and angering labor and environmental groups back home. As the senior Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee, Wyden is at the center of the debate.
“Wyden trying to pull a fast one on fast track,” blared the headline of a recent Oregon AFL-CIO newsletter.
“Save the Internet, Stop Fast Track,” read a 30-foot blimp by a company called Fight for the Future that flew over the senator’s town hall meeting last month.
Wyden acknowledges the hubbub and shrugs it off.
“It comes with the territory,” he said this week, hurrying from the Capitol to his office nearby. “I’m a big guy.”
Six-foot-four, to be exact — tall enough to play Division I basketball in college. Instead of a sports career, he opted for law school and politics. At 66, Wyden is a 35-year veteran of the House and Senate, facing re-election to a full fourth term amid a dizzying array of other details. He’s a father of five — including twin 7-year-olds and a toddler — a cancer survivor and a key negotiator on tax policy, privacy law, health care policy and trade.
“Some days I look at him and I know he’s got to be tired,” said Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del.
What’s high-energy and a “wide bandwidth” to some is considered frenetic and unpredictable by others in the Senate. But no one doubts that Wyden commands an unusually large portfolio of high-profile legislation or that his brand of pragmatism can be effective.
Wyden, from his post on the finance panel, is his party’s chief negotiator of trade legislation that would allow Obama to negotiate trade deals, such as an historic accord with 11 Pacific Rim nations.
And should Senate Republicans try next week to extend the Patriot Act’s expiring spying powers, Wyden says he’ll try to block the effort with a filibuster.
If he does, little love would be lost between him and majority Republicans, who spent the week openly questioning Wyden’s credibility. A dozen Democrats who support the legislation weren’t happy, either. On the brink of Senate action, they let Wyden know they would vote against it — unless Republicans agreed to demands on other measures that would give them political cover with unions and other groups.
Abruptly, Wyden abandoned the legislation he had helped write. He joined the dozen protesting Democratic senators in the last-minute ultimatum, demanding that majority Republicans also offer votes on bills to enforce labor standards with the U.S. trading partners and crack down on currency manipulation by foreign governments.
An only-in-the-Senate spectacle ensued: Wyden and the dozen Democrats voted against moving ahead on the package they, and Obama, support.
Stunned, the White House sputtered about the “snafu.” Obama summoned Senate Democrats for a meeting. And Republicans thundered about the perceived double-cross by Wyden, in a chamber that operates substantially on relationships and trust.
“Words,” grumbled Utah GOP Sen. Orrin Hatch ominously, “have been broken.”
Does he think Wyden, his negotiating partner on the Finance Committee, had been dishonest?
“I’m not going to talk about our relationship,” replied Hatch, the committee chairman. “Was I disappointed? Yes. That’s all I’m going to say.”
It remained unclear what had transpired between the two, but Wyden insists he did not promise to move forward without the enforcement and currency bills.
“I would not have agreed to that,” he says.
Within 24 hours, Republicans had agreed to the Democratic demands. And the legislation allowing Obama to strike a historic Pacific trade agreement inched forward. Pro-trade lawmakers can say they voted for giving the United States a bigger piece of overseas markets. Democrats could tell labor unions they tried to force through additional bills to enforce existing labor standards with overseas trading partners, and to crack down on currency manipulation by foreign governments. And Wyden could claim both, including co-authorship of the main bill to grant Obama the authority to strike the Pacific Rim deal.
“He did the right thing,” said Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio.
From Wyden’s viewpoint, the gambit succeeded. He’s pro-trade, but can now say he stood up for the enforcement of labor standards some in the Democratic base demand — both answers to the backlash he’s facing over the issue in Oregon.
Within hours of voting down the initial bill, Wyden’s re-election campaign issued a release bragging about the ultimatum.
“I remain committed to expanding trade opportunities for Oregonians and all Americans,” he wrote. “But we’re going to do it right.”