Negotiations to clinch a trade deal with 11 other countries around the Pacific Ocean have faltered ahead of midterm elections in the United States, but that's not stopping House Democrats from fretting about it.
More than 150 representatives sent a letter to U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman Thursday urging him to make labor rights a priority in talks with Asian and Latin American countries over a trade deal called the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).
"It is clear that Vietnam, in particular, must do substantial work to achieve a minimally acceptable level of respect for workers' rights for a trading partner of the United States," the letter reads.
"We are currently pursuing provisions in TPP that will increase respect for labor rights, improve conditions for workers, and level the playing field for U.S. workers," USTR spokesman Trevor Kincaid said in response.
When Froman was asked about Vietnam at a hearing last month before the House Ways and Means Committee, he said: "Engagement with them through this trade negotiation is the most effective way of making progress on those issues."
Progress toward a deal, however, looks elusive: President Obama's trip to Japan last month failed to finalize the agreement. The Obama administration wanted to seal the deal by the end of last year, but as talks spilled into 2014, it became clear that the effort would face headwinds in Congress before November. In January, a day after President Obama emphasized trade in his State of the Union address, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid broke with the White House, saying he opposed legislation that would smooth the agreement's path through Congress by guaranteeing it a straight vote.
Nonetheless, trade opponents are not breathing easy. Some worry that if Republicans gain seats in November, a trade deal could get approved during a lame-duck session.
"We have to remain vigilant in our concerns about American workers being left behind in the consideration of these agreements," said Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.).
Gary Hufbauer, a trade expert at the Peterson Institute for International Economics, said lawmakers may be emphasizing their positions to enhance their re-election chances; or they could be signaling that they won't vote for the deal, should it be finalized.
"Whatever comes out of TPP, it won't be good enough for people concerned about worker rights," Hufbauer said.
Politics aside, negotiators still must resolve a number of thorny issues. U.S. agricultural trade groups called to exclude Japan -- the largest economy other than the United States in the talks -- after Japanese officials said they wouldn't drop tariffs on imported U.S. farm products. The deal aims to open up markets by eliminating taxes and duties on items such as automobiles, wheat, and sugar.
The other countries negotiating are Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam, Singapore, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Mexico, Chile, and Peru. China is not participating but could perhaps sign on later.
A separate agreement with Europe is underway, but that deal isn't as far along and has also hit snags, including disagreements over food labeling. Negotiations were also derailed last fall when U.S. intelligence contractor Edward Snowden alleged that the United States was eavesdropping on German Chancellor Angela Merkel's cellphone calls.
YOSHIKAZU TSUNO/ AFP/ GETTY IMAGES