The overlooked debate disagreement between Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren

"If this is passed, I think it will set us back a number of years."

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., seek to answer a question as Joe Biden pauses Tuesday, Jan. 14, 2020, during a Democratic presidential primary debate hosted by CNN and the Des Moines Register in Des Moines, Iowa. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
Sens . Elizabeth Warren and. Bernie Sanders seek to answer a question, as Joe Biden pauses, Tuesday during a Democratic presidential primary debate hosted by CNN and the Des Moines Register in Des Moines, Iowa. –Patrick Semansky / AP

Amid their conflicting accounts of a 2018 meeting and a tense post-debate exchange, Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren fleshed out an emerging policy disagreement Tuesday night.

Trade.

Sanders and Warren, two progressive populists, have been largely aligned on the issue of international trade, fiercely opposing free trade deals that they see as weighted toward corporate interests. However, the Massachusetts senator recently announced that she plans to vote in favor of President Donald Trump’s renegotiated North American trade deal, which recently passed by an overwhelming margin in the Democrat-controlled House.

That left Sanders as the only Democratic presidential candidate on stage Tuesday voicing opposition to the newly branded United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement, which he has said contains only “modest” improvements.

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“We could do much better than a Trump-led trade deal,” the Vermont senator said.

Sanders — who had voted against the deal’s predecessor, NAFTA, as a congressman — noted that some labor unions and most major environmental groups remain opposed the USMCA. Sanders said the deal would not stop the outsourcing of American jobs and doesn’t even contain the phrase “climate change.”

“Given the fact that climate change is right now the greatest threat facing this planet, I will not vote for a trade agreement that does not incorporate very, very strong principles to significantly lower fossil fuel emissions in the world,” he said.

Asked why she disagrees, Warren said she believes the deal was at least a step in the right direction.

“We have farmers here in Iowa who are hurting,” she said. “And they are hurting because of Donald Trump’s initiated trade wars.”

Warren, who had previously opposed the USMCA, noted the agreement negotiated between the Trump administration and House Democrats included new enforcement mechanisms for ensuring labor standards are upheld in all three countries. During an interview last week, she also noted that the reworked deal had gotten rid of a “handout” for pharmaceutical companies.

“This new trade deal is a modest improvement; Senator Sanders himself has said so,” Warren said Tuesday night.

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“It will give some relief to our farmers,” she added. “It will give some relief to our workers. I believe we accept that relief, we try to help the people who need help, and we get up the next day and fight for a better trade deal.”

Warren reiterated her belief that the United States should fundamentally rethink its approach to international economic policy — incorporating more workers in negotiations and leveraging foreign countries’ desire to access American markets to set higher labor and environmental standards.

Sanders agreed with those broad goals. But given the urgency of addressing climate change, Sanders said he couldn’t vote for the USMCA. Some scientists say the international community has up until around 2030 to lower emissions enough to prevent disastrous levels of global warming; NAFTA was last negotiated in 1994.

“I think that it is not so easy to put together new trade legislation,” Sanders said. “If this is passed, I think it will set us back a number of years.”

The debate moderators moved on to the other candidates on stage, who generally sided with Warren — supporting the USMCA as an improved, if not perfect, trade deal and calling for workers and the environment to be prioritized in future negotiations.

Sanders criticized Joe Biden, the only other candidate who was in Congress in the 1990s, for voting in favor of NAFTA, which the senator said resulted in jobs losses and “a race to the bottom.” Sanders, an independent congressman at the time, was one of 200 House members to vote against NAFTA in 1993.

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While alone in opposing the USMCA on-stage Tuesday night, Sanders won’t be the only no vote in the Senate.

Massachusetts Sen. Ed Markey — the co-author of the Green New Deal and an ally of Warrenannounced his opposition to the USMCA on Tuesday, similarly citing its lack of action to tackle climate change. And as Roll Call reported, New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand and Rhode Island Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse also joined Sanders and Markey in opposing the USMCA in a Senate environmental committee vote Tuesday (the deal still passed 16-4).

Thirty-eight House Democrats also voted against the USMCA last month. It passed 385 to 41.

Still, the USMCA is the first trade deal in nearly two decades that has received support from the AFL-CIO, the country’s largest federation of labor unions. In a statement last month, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said the deal was “far from perfect,” but contained enforceable improvement that workers could “proudly support.”

“It alone is not a solution for outsourcing, inequality or climate change,” Trumka said. “Successfully tackling these issues requires a full-court press of economic policies that empower workers, including the repeal of tax cuts which reward companies for shipping our jobs overseas. But there is no denying that the trade rules in America will now be fairer because of our hard work and perseverance.”

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