WASHINGTON — A proposal to give the president greater authority to negotiate international trade agreements has become a rare point of contention among the Democrats in Maryland's nascent Senate race, with Rep. Donna F. Edwards accusing her opponent of trying to back away from his past support of similar deals.
Hitting on an issue that is closely followed by the state's politically powerful unions, the Edwards campaign criticized Rep. Chris Van Hollen for his past votes in favor of trade agreements with Colombia, South Korea and Panama — deals that were all opposed by Edwards and a majority of House Democrats.
Edwards' decision to criticize Van Hollen's record on the issue underscores the effort she is making to run to the left of the Montgomery County Democrat, who has managed to secure more endorsements and campaign cash in the race to replace retiring Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski.
The agreements, which set policies on tariffs, quotas and other trade barriers, are generally opposed by liberal groups.
"In yet another stunning election time conversion, Congressman Van Hollen has changed yet another position," Edwards campaign spokesman Benjamin Gerdes told The Baltimore Sun. "Maryland families deserve a senator with firm convictions, not one who goes whichever way the political winds are blowing or who makes decisions based on the next election."
The Van Hollen campaign, in response, pointed to several letters signed by the congressman last year in which he raised concerns about the trade agreements. The campaign noted Van Hollen has a 95 percent lifetime score from the AFL-CIO, which has opposed the trade deals, and that he recently won the support of a Baltimore-based Teamsters union — the first labor endorsement in the race.
"Congressman Van Hollen has always stood up for Maryland workers, and has always enjoyed their support in his campaigns and on his legislative priorities," a Van Hollen aide, Tom Russell, said in a statement. "That's why he is the only candidate to have been endorsed by labor in this Senate race."
While many Democrats have said they are considering a run for the Senate vacancy, only Edwards and Van Hollen have announced campaigns. No Republican has entered the contest.
The dispute comes as lawmakers on Capitol Hill announced Thursday they had crafted a bipartisan bill that would give President Barack Obama the ability to present the often-controversial trade deals to Congress for an up-or-down vote, free from amendments, vastly improving their chances.
While the idea of fast-tracking the deals is supported by the White House and many Republicans, it has driven a wedge between liberal and pro-business Democrats.
Liberal Democrats say trade deals ship U.S. jobs overseas to countries with less stringent environmental and labor standards. Opponents of the measure rallied on Capitol Hill Wednesday.
Van Hollen surprised some this week by opposing the fast-track bill before it was publicly released. Because he is a senior member of the House with close ties to Democratic leaders, his announcement was viewed as a victory for groups fighting the measure.
But Edwards saw inconsistency.
Her campaign noted Van Hollen voted for the last three trade deals in 2011 — with Colombia, Panama and South Korea. On the Colombia vote, Van Hollen was one of 31 House Democrats to join a majority of Republicans to support the bill. The rest of the Democratic caucus — 158 members — voted against it.
Van Hollen supported six other trade agreements — with Chile, Singapore, Morocco and Peru, among others — since entering Congress in 2003. He voted against a multilateral trade agreement with Central American countries in 2005 and an agreement with Oman in 2006.
"This is the one issue where there's really just a bright-line difference between them," said Lori M. Wallach, director of Public Citizen's Global Trade Watch, which has opposed the deals.
"Congresswoman Edwards had consistently voted against these job-killing agreements and actually helped to lead the fight to stop them."
Legislation to fast-track trade measures is a separate issue from the deals themselves. But in this case the effort to speed approval is linked directly to a landmark agreement the Obama administration is negotiating with 11 other Pacific Rim countries.
Many believe the Trans-Pacific Partnership deal — a possible centerpiece of Obama's economic legacy — will not pass without fast-track authority.
"It's no secret that past trade deals haven't always lived up to their promise, and that's why I will only sign my name to an agreement that helps ordinary Americans get ahead," Obama said in a statement Thursday as details of the legislation emerged.
Since Edwards announced her candidacy, she has sought to lay claim to the progressive wing of the party — pitching to the liberal voters who are most likely to show up in a Democratic primary election.
She has the backing of several national liberal groups and has repeatedly suggested she has taken stronger positions than Van Hollen on protecting Social Security and other entitlements.
Van Hollen, for his part, has pointed to what he describes as a record of accomplishment in the House — suggesting that getting things done should trump ideological purity.
It's also the case that while Edwards is considered among the most liberal Democrats in the House, Van Hollen is still on the left end of the party's spectrum.
Former Gov. Martin O'Malley, who is adopting a similar run-to-the-left strategy as he considers a run for president in 2016, came out strongly opposed to the trade deal in an address Thursday. His chief rival, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, has not taken a position on the deal.
"We must stop entering into bad trade deals — bad trade deals like the Trans-Pacific Partnership — that hurt middle class wages and ship middle class jobs overseas," O'Malley said in a speech at Harvard University on Thursday, according to a copy of his prepared remarks. "Chasing cheaper labor abroad will not help us build a stronger economy here at home."
How the two Senate candidates approach the trade issue will be watched closely by labor groups in Maryland, many of which are beginning the process of interviewing candidates to decide on endorsements.
Fred D. Mason Jr., president of the state AFL-CIO, said he is planning to send a notice to members to tout the fact that most of the state's congressional delegation is opposing the fast-track effort.
But Mason was cautious when asked whether Van Hollen's past support for trade deals could hurt his chances at receiving the support of the powerful union in the primary.
The group plans to set its process for making endorsements next week.
"We will look at the totality of what they have done," Mason said. "Right now, it's too early for us to be choosing sides."