TIME White House

Education Department Dials Back Plan to Rate Colleges

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The Department of Education announced this week that it’s backing off its ambitious and controversial plan to rate all of the nation’s colleges and universities, marking a win for institutions and the vast higher education lobby that vehemently opposed the idea.

Administration officials promised nearly two years ago that they would roll out a new federal ratings plan, the Post-Secondary Institution Rating System (PIRS), to help push students toward high-quality schools that would give them the best return on their money. President Obama also suggested that the system could eventually be used as a tool to hold institutions accountable, by tying federal financial aid to institutions’ ratings.

The Education Department announced yesterday that it would instead release a different, significantly less ambitious “ratings tool” that will simply provide information about all of the more than 7,500 colleges and universities in the country, so students can “reach their own conclusions about a college’s value.” The new tool will not explicitly rate the institutions based on any measures of quality nor tie federal aid to a school’s performance. (The announcement prompted a cheeky discussion on Twitter about how, exactly, that could be called a “ratings tool” at all.)

Administration officials insisted that the Education Department’s decision to back off on the ratings system did not mark a significant policy shift: the original rating plan was designed primarily as a consumer-facing tool, to help students make informed decisions; the new tool will play precisely role.

Still, many advocates were disappointed. Ben Miller, the senior director of post-secondary education at the Center for American Progress, says it was “a decent step back from putting colleges on notice.”

“The problem I have is that anyone can create a consumer tool” that provides information about schools to students, he said. The Education Department’s College Scorecard and the National Center for Education Statistics’ College Navigator already do some of that.

“What the Education Department does have is an accountability role over every college and university in the country,” he said. “So that’s my disappointment. I wish it would use that unique role more and not do something anyone can do.”

Rachel Fishman, a policy analyst with New America’s Education Policy Program, saw the Education Department’s reversal this week as a “major win for institutions,” which, along with the higher education lobby and a coalition of mostly Republican lawmakers, opposed the ratings plan from the start. They argued that it was little more than a government-led effort to publicly shame certain schools on the basis of incomplete federal data and biased formulas that would reward schools for doing things like, say, admitting high percentages of low-income students.

The higher education lobby argued that PIRS, which was never completed, would be inherently unfair, “since it would be based on incomplete federal data on student achievement,” Fishman said. “They’re right that there’s incomplete data, but the reason for that is because the higher education lobby fought for a ban on that data,” she said. (The government’s ability to collect student records is currently very limited.)

Andrew Kelly, the director of the Center on Higher Education Reform at the American Enterprise Institute, saw the Education Department’s reversal on its rating plan as an indictment of the plan itself. “It’s easy to chalk this up to the higher education lobby’s power, but that implicitly suggests that the policy itself was sound and was the right way to go, and I think that’s not correct,” he said. “I think the notion of the federal government rating colleges wasn’t particularly appropriate in the first place. Where they would up is probably where they would have started.”

Administration officials argued that it hasn’t dropped the ball on holding institutions accountable; it’s just using other tools. For example, on Tuesday this week, a federal court judge threw out a lawsuit brought by for-profit colleges that attempted to overturn the federal government’s new “gainful employment rules,” which will require for-profit and a very limited number of other colleges to meet certain benchmarks of quality—like whether alumni get jobs that pay them well enough to repay their loans—in order to receive federal financial aid. The new rule are now set to go into effect next week.

TIME global trade

Liberals Vow to Punish Democrats for Trade Vote

Demonstrators protest against the legislation to give President Barack Obama fast-track authority to advance trade deals, including the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), during a protest march on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, May 21, 2015.
SAUL LOEB—AFP/Getty Images Demonstrators protest against the legislation to give President Barack Obama fast-track authority to advance trade deals, including the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), during a protest march on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, May 21, 2015.

Democrats who voted Thursday afternoon in favor of a controversial trade bill, known as “fast track,” will feel the wrath of some liberal groups.

The bill, known as the Trade Promotion Authority, passed 218-208, with 28 Democrats siding with President Obama and a strong, if unlikely, majority of Republicans. But liberal groups warned they would face a backlash from Democratic voters.

Democrats who allowed the passage of [the fast track] … should know that we will not lift a finger or raise a penny to protect you when you’re attacked in 2016, we will encourage our progressive allies to join us in leaving you to rot,” said Jim Dean, chair of Democracy for America, “and we will actively search for opportunities to primary you with a real Democrat,”

“Those primaries could happen next year or they could happen in election cycles to come, but, make no mistake, we will make certain that your vote to fast track the destruction of American jobs will be remembered and will haunt you for years to come,” he added. Democracy for America oversees a grassroots membership of 10.1 million.

Erich Pica, president of Friends of the Earth, a national environmental organization, said that he was “profoundly disappointed” with the Democratic leadership. “Sadly, we have come to expect Republicans to sell out the environment for the pursuit of corporate profits,” he said. “But we expect more regard for environmental protection and respect for working families from President Obama and the Democrats who supported this bill.”

The Trade Promotion Authority gives Obama the legal power to negotiate, and then pass to Congress for a straight up-or-down vote, all future free trade deals. That includes the controversial and imminent Trans-Pacific Partnership, which would knit together 12 Pacific Rim nations and 40% of the world’s GDP. Liberals, labor activists and environmentalists have furiously lobbied Democratic politicians in recent months to vote against the fast track on the grounds that it “greases the skids” for the TPP, which they argue will lead to job losses in the U.S., and a degradation of workers’ rights and environmental protections abroad.

But many major liberal heavyweights, including the labor unions, have been unwilling to make Democratic votes on the fast track bill a litmus test. AFL-CIO, for example, said this week that its 2016 endorsements will “not hinge” on how candidates voted on trade.

Stephanie Taylor, the co-founder of Progressive Change Campaign Committee, stopped short of making an ultimatum Thursday, asking instead that Democratic leaders lobby the Senate to vote no on the bill. “Voters need to see that Democratic Party leaders, including Hillary Clinton, are willing to strongly fight corporate interests that seek to hurt workers and everyday families,” she said Thursday. “All presidential candidates should urge the Senate to vote no on fast track.”

Clinton, the Democratic frontrunner, has yet to weigh in on whether she supports either fast track or the Trans-Pacific Partnership. In comments last weekend, she urged the White House to work with Congressional Democrats to strengthen support for American workers—a comment that broke from a strongly pro-trade position in the past.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has promised that the bill will pass the Senate.

TIME 2016 Campaign

‘Run Warren Run’ to Disband

Sen. Elizabeth Warren listens to Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen testify, at a Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee hearing on "Semiannual Monetary Policy Report to Congress" on Capitol Hill in Washington, Feb. 24, 2015.
Kevin Lamarque—Reuters Sen. Elizabeth Warren listens to Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen testify, at a Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee hearing on "Semiannual Monetary Policy Report to Congress" on Capitol Hill in Washington, Feb. 24, 2015.

Six months after launching “Run Warren Run,” a quixotic campaign to draft Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren into the 2016 presidential race, the two progressive organizations behind it will call it quits and focus more broadly on a populist agenda in the 2016 presidential race, according to a spokesman.

Democracy for America and MoveOn.org, which together spent $1.25 million dollars launching the campaign last December, plan to visit Warren’s Washington, DC office on June 8 and deliver a petition with 365,000 signatures asking the senator to run.

The organizations will then pivot to more issue-specific advocacy, including thwarting the Trans-Pacific Partnership, an enormous, 12-nation free trade pact that liberals argue will kill jobs and reduce labor and environmental standards worldwide. Warren, who has said repeatedly that she has no intention of running for the White House, has been a staunch critic of the trade pact.

Despite their lack of success at convincing Warren to run, both DFA and MoveOn.org described the short-lived campaign as a victory for liberal populists. “Even without her in the race, Elizabeth Warren and the Run Warren Run campaign she inspired have already transformed the 2016 presidential election by focusing every single Democratic candidate on combatting our country’s income inequality crisis,” Charles Chamberlain, the executive director of DFA, said in a statement. Ilya Sheyman, the executive director of MoveOn.org Political Action, said the campaign helped bring issues of inequality and corporate dominance to the fore.

The two organizations cited as “key accomplishments” an extensive, multi-column March op-ed in the Boston Globe urging Warren to run, as well as public statements of support from prominent figures in the progressive movement, including Van Jones and Lawrence Lessig. More than 60 state legislators in the early-voting state of New Hampshire joined the Run Warren Run campaign by this spring.

Run Warren Run, which opened field offices and hired staff in the early-voting states of Iowa and New Hampshire, ran a traditional, grassroots campaign. Volunteers hosted house parties and organized roadside “honk and waves.”

It was a effort defined largely by blind optimism. Even as Warren said publicly, time and again, that she was not running for president, and had no intention to do so, the campaign consistently urged her to reconsider. Its unraveling was no different. At the end of a statement announcing the dissolution of Run Warren Run, Chamberlain sent up one last flare: “We still think there’s plenty of time,” he said, “for Sen. Warren to change her mind.”

TIME Chris Christie

Chris Christie to Pull New Jersey Out of Common Core

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.
Julio Cortez—AP New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.

The move could help Christie in his quest for the Republican presidential nomination

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie will announce Thursday he is pulling his state out of the Common Core education standards, bowing to pressure from teachers and parents, as well as conservative fears about government overreach.

Christie, who is expected to declare his candidacy for President in the coming months, began a review of the standards a year ago, just as the issue began bubbling up in town-hall meetings in New Jersey and on the campaign trail.

Developed as a bipartisan proposal by state governors and states’ chiefs of schools six years ago, Common Core has become increasingly toxic politically among conservatives. Several Republican governors who initially supported the Common Core have backed out in recent years, and others have worked hard to distance themselves from it.

Christie’s announcement comes the same day that a lawsuit regarding Common Core, initiated by Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, who once supported the standards, was heard in a Baton Rouge court. Jindal is suing the U.S. Department of Education for allegedly “coercing” states into adopting Common Core by tying $4.35 billion in federal funding from Race to the Top, and waivers from No Child Left Behind, to the adoption of high standards.

The Obama Administration has moved to dismiss the case on the grounds that states were never required to adopt Common Core in particular, but instead to adopt any “rigorous standards” of their choosing. Forty-six states signed onto Common Core after it was finalized in 2010.

“It’s now been five years since Common Core was adopted. And the truth is that it’s simply not working,” Christie will say in a speech at Burlington County College in New Jersey on Thursday afternoon. “It has brought only confusion and frustration to our parents. And has brought distance between our teachers and the communities where they work.”

The move sets up a contrast between himself and former Florida governor Jeb Bush, who remains a supporter of the standards. While Bush has distanced himself rhetorically from the policy, choosing not to use the words Common and Core, his education foundation helped fund and advocated for their implementation nationwide. Ohio Governor John Kasich, a likely GOP contender, has also stood up in defense of Common Core, condemning those in his party who have turned their back on them.

“Sometimes things get to be political and they get to be runaway Internet issues,” Kasich said in New Hampshire in March. “We don’t want the federal government driving K-12 education, and in my state — the state of Ohio — that is simply not the case.”

The reversal comes as Christie’s political fortunes are at a crossroads. His poll numbers have continued to wane from the lingering effects of the politically motivated closure of approach lanes to the George Washington Bridge and a weak fiscal picture in the Garden State. But Christie is pegging his hopes for success on New Hampshire, the libertarian-minded state where the Common Core standards are especially divisive.

Christie is tasking David Hespe, the commissioner of the state’s department of education, to lead a panel that will develop a new set of standards for the state.

“I have heard far too many people — teachers and parents from across the state — that the Common Core standards were not developed by New Jersey educators and parents,” Christie will say according to prepared remarks from his office. “As a result, the buy-in from both communities has not been what we need for maximum achievements. I agree. It is time to have standards that are even higher and come directly from our communities. I agree. It is time to have standards that are even higher and come directly from our communities.”

Common Core has also been a major bone of contention in Democratic states, where opposition to the standards is linked to objections to an uptick in standardized testing. Last year, Chicago schools chief Barbara Byrd-Bennett tempted federal sanctions by announcing that she did not intend to force her students to take the tests associated with Common Core. Tens of thousands of New York State students also opted out of the Common Core testing regime.

TIME Education

Chinese Nationals Accused of Vast SAT Cheating Conspiracy

They helped foreign students cheat on college entrance exams, according to an indictment

A group of 15 Chinese nationals are accused of orchestrating a vast conspiracy to help foreign students cheat on standardized college entrance exams administered in the U.S., in what appears to be one of the more brazen testing-related scandals in the past decade, according to a federal grand jury indictment unsealed Thursday.

For the past four years, the defendants provided counterfeit Chinese passports to impostors, who then sneaked into testing centers, mostly in western Pennsylvania, where they took the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT), the Graduate Record Examination (GRE), or the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL), while claiming to be someone else, according to the indictment.

It’s unclear how many students used these fraudulent test scores to gain admission to American colleges and universities, and to therefore illegally obtain F1 Student Visas.

“These students were not only cheating their way into the university, they were also cheating their way through our nation’s immigration system,” said special agent John Kelleghan of Homeland Security Investigations in Philadelphia. “HSI will continue to protect our nation’s borders and work with our federal law enforcement partners to seek out those committing transnational crimes and bring them to justice.”

A federal grand jury in Pittsburgh issued an indictment on May 21 on 35 charges, including conspiracy, counterfeiting foreign passports, and defrauding the Educational Testing Services (ETS) and the College Board, according to U.S. Attorney David J. Hickton for the Western District of Pennsylvania.

If the defendants are found guilty, they face a maximum total sentence of 20 years in prison and hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines.

TIME Hillary Clinton

Why Hillary Clinton’s Campaign Isn’t the Most Liberal Ever

Democratic presidential candidate and former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton speaks at Rancho High School in Las Vegas on May 5, 2015.
Ethan Miller—Getty Images Democratic presidential candidate and former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton speaks at Rancho High School in Las Vegas on May 5, 2015.

Her positions are all within mainstream political opinion

A number of Beltway pundits have recently decided that Hillary Clinton is not just running a liberal campaign, but perhaps the most liberal campaign in decades. But that’s not entirely accurate.

Just as you can’t step into the same river twice, no presidential campaign ever faces the same electorate. And on a range of issues, America has become more liberal since the last time Clinton ran.

Without exception, the positions that have been cited as “boldly liberal” are entirely in line with mainstream public opinion.

Take gay marriage, which Clinton endorsed in 2013. As of last year, 6 in 10 Americans—and a whopping 74% of Democrats—were in favor of it too, according to a recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll.

Or immigration. Last week, Clinton was congratulated by many liberals for backing a broad path to citizenship for roughly 11 million undocumented people. But in an NBC/WSJ poll last fall, 60% of Americans were in favor of a “path to citizenship” and nearly 75% were even more in favor of it if the plan involved asking immigrants to jump through certain hoops, such as paying back taxes.

Or criminal justice reform. Last week, Clinton called for reforming sentencing laws and reducing how much military-grade equipment is funneled off to police departments. But as of last year, that’s pretty much exactly where most Americans were, too: 63% were against mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent crimes, according to Pew Research, and nearly 60% thought militarization of police had gone too far.

The same is true on other socially liberal issues that Clinton has backed lately, much to the delight of the liberal base, including better gun control measures, a minimum wage increase, and paid family leave. As of 2013, 91% of Americans supported mandating criminal background checks before someone is allowed to purchase a weapon, and 60% supported reinstating a ban on assault weapons, according to Gallup. Roughly two-thirds of Americans are now in favor of raising the minimum wage and 60% believe that employers ought to give paid time-off to employees when they’re sick, according to a February AP-GfK poll.

In early May, liberal activist groups claimed victory after Clinton’s campaign manager, Robby Mook, hinted that the Democratic front-runner would soon announce a comprehensive plan to make college more affordable. But again, she’s right in line with most Americans. According to the Harvard Institute of Politics, 79% of Americans described student debt as “a problem” that needs to be addressed.

At the same time, Clinton has kept mum on some liberal ideas that are more divisive. She’s avoided taking a stance on President Obama’s big new free trade deal, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which many liberals have criticized. While she’s made some populist remarks about reining in Wall Street, she’s stopped short of getting specific on liberal ideas like capping CEO pay or breaking up the big banks. And she’s not taken a definitive stance on the construction of the Keystone XL oil pipeline, which has become a signature issue for environmentalists hoping to address climate change.

It’s possible, then, to imagine a more liberal campaign than the one Clinton is running. And if seems like she has the most liberal campaign in history, that’s partly because she’s facing an America that is more liberal on those issues.

TIME global trade

Did Senate Democrats Just Kill Obama’s Free Trade Deal?

President Barack Obama pauses during a meeting at the White House in Washington on May 1, 2015.
Susan Walsh—AP President Barack Obama pauses during a meeting at the White House in Washington on May 1, 2015.

In his years-long effort to advance a massive new trade deal, President Obama weathered a major setback Tuesday from an unlikely source: his fellow Democrats.

While Senate Republicans largely rallied around a vote to consider the so-called fast-track trade bill, which would strengthen Obama’s authority to complete the Trans-Pacific Partnership, all but one Senate Democrat voted to block it.

The fast-track bill would limit Congress’s ability to amend future trade pacts and is widely considered a vital first step on the path to ratifying the partnership, the biggest free trade deal of all time and a legacy-defining priority for the Obama Administration.

Whether Tuesday’s setback is permanent is now the big question.

Shortly after the vote, a half-dozen liberal groups, including the AFL-CIO, Democracy For America and Greenpeace, which have vehemently opposed both fast track and the trade deal, celebrated Tuesday’s blocked vote as a major victory. “We appreciate those senators who stood with working people today against a bill that would have led to undemocratic trade deals that lower wages and eliminate jobs,” crowed AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka in a statement. “This vote sends a message loud and clear.”

But whether the vote actually forebodes the end of the fast track—and the end of the Trans-Pacific Partnership more broadly—is actually not clear at all.

Simon Rosenberg, the founder and president of the New Democrat Network and a supporter of free trade, explained the day’s drama as simply an effort by Senate Democrats, many of whom have every intention to eventually vote in favor of fast-track, to sweeten the pot a bit in the meantime. “What Democrats are saying is, if you want our votes, we need more than what we have now,” he said.

What exactly Senate Democrats hope to get out of this maneuver—and whether their power play will work—will likely be hashed out in negotiations in coming weeks.

Pro-trade Democrats, including Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon, who coauthored the fast track bill, and Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, who also supports giving the president fast track authority, have not been shy in their demands. Both said they would not vote to advance the fast track until Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell agreed to include in the package three other trade measures, including one that would crack down on currency manipulation, one that would aid U.S. workers harmed by a new free trade deal and another that would strengthen the government’s ability to crack down on violations of the trade deal.

There is apparently room for negotiation. New York Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer, who is in favor of the fast track and the free trade deal, but said he withheld his support until a measure on currency manipulation was included, told the New York Times that he might be willing to drop that demand. By Tuesday evening, McConnell was already wheeling and dealing, telling reporters that he had already repackaged the fast track bill with the measure helping U.S. workers, and said that Democrats could add other measures as amendments.

But Bhaskar Chakravorti, the founding executive director of Tufts University’s Fletcher’s Institute for Business in the Global Context, warned that it’s not that simple. New measures can’t simply be added overnight to the draft trade deal, which currently encompasses the U.S. and 11 other countries, including Japan, Australia, Vietnam and Chile and would govern 40% of the world’s Gross Domestic Product. U.S. negotiators will have to take each change back into multiple rounds of discussion with all 11 partner countries, all of which are at different stages of development and have different things to gain from the pact, Chakravorti said.

One of the stickiest wickets, experts say, might be a measure restricting currency manipulation. Japan has said explicitly that it will not join a free trade deal that includes such restrictions.

But, Chakravorti added, the Democratic Senators’ public mutiny against their own president could also help U.S. negotiators in the long run. “Preventing the fast track is already sending a signal to the negotiators on the other side of the table [in foreign countries] to offer certain protections for certain type of jobs,” he added. “It was meant to send a signal and I’m sure that signal is being heard.”

TIME Congress

Obama Moves Closer to Inking Pacific Trade Deal

US President Barack Obama speaks about trade policy at Nike Headquarters in Beaverton, Oregon, May 8, 2015 .
Brendan Smialowski—Getty Images US President Barack Obama speaks about trade policy at Nike Headquarters in Beaverton, Oregon, May 8, 2015 .

President Obama may move closer to a career-defining Pacific Rim trade deal Tuesday that could permanently alter the balance of power between the White House and Congress on trade issues.

The Senate is expected to approve a bill to give the president “fast track” authority to make trade deals, reducing Congress’ role to approving or rejecting the entire deal. Members of Congress would not be allowed to filibuster a vote on a trade pact, add amendments, delete parts or otherwise tweak the final version of a trade deal.

If it passes, the bill would grease the skids for Obama to finish the Trans-Pacific Partnership, an unprecedentedly massive trade pact binding the U.S. and eleven other countries, including Japan, Australia and Chile, and governing 40% of the world’s GDP.

Most trade experts agree that if the fast track bill passes, it all but guarantees that the Trans-Pacific Partnership will too.

Supporters of the Trans-Pacific Partnership say getting the fast track bill passed is crucial since, without it, Congress could muddle up a document that has been delicately wrought in private negotiations for nearly a decade.

But critics of the deal, which includes an unlikely coalition of Tea Party Republicans and liberal Democrats, argue that passing the fast-track bill is akin to signing a blank check.

Conservative critics worry that the fast-track hands undue power to a president they already don’t trust. In an impassioned plea to supporters Sunday, Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions wrote that the fast-track bill marks a “consolidation of power in the executive branch,” by eliminating “Congress’ ability to amend or debate trade implementing legislation and guarantees an up-or-down vote on a far-reaching international agreement before that agreement has received any public review.”

Liberal Democrats, for their part, argue that the Trans-Pacific Partnership would be bad for working class Americans by shipping more decent jobs overseas. Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren has said that the Trans-Pacific Partnership will strip safeguards on the financial industry and establish a shadowy international legal system, wherein powerful corporates can sue countries through private tribunals. Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada has promised to filibuster it if it comes to that.

Meanwhile, Obama has launched an aggressive and unusually personal lobbying campaign to pass both the fast-track bill and the final trade deal. In past months, he has met with members of Congress in the West Wing, promised allies future political support, and publicly attacked members of his own party who have been critical of the deal.

On Saturday, Obama called his one-time top ally, Warren, “absolutely wrong” in her opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership. “The truth of the matter is that Elizabeth is, you know, a politician like everybody else,” he said in an interview with Yahoo News on Saturday. “And you know, she’s got a voice that she wants to get out there. And I understand that. And on most issues, she and I deeply agree. On this one, though, her arguments don’t stand the test of fact and scrutiny.”

Warren responded Monday by arguing that Obama should release the full text of the agreement now in order to clear the air.

The Senate is expected to pass the fast-track bill tomorrow by a hair, although it’s hardly a slam dunk. The House, which has not yet scheduled a vote on the bill, is likely to put up more of a fight. The final language of the Trans-Pacific Partnership itself will be hammered out by negotiators in Guam this week and in the Philippines later this month.

TIME Congress

Can Elizabeth Warren Kill President Obama’s Trade Deal?

Sen. Elizabeth Warren listens to Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen testify, at a Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee hearing on "Semiannual Monetary Policy Report to Congress" on Capitol Hill in Washington, Feb. 24, 2015.
Kevin Lamarque—Reuters Sen. Elizabeth Warren listens to Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen testify, at a Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee hearing on "Semiannual Monetary Policy Report to Congress" on Capitol Hill in Washington, Feb. 24, 2015.

Elizabeth Warren, the famously fiery populist senator from Massachusetts, has a reputation for having a bit of a reverse-Midas touch, when she wants to: if she decides she is against something, it often turns to smoke.

The latest subject of her withering glare? In a letter to supporters Thursday afternoon, Warren decried a sub-chapter in the Obama administration’s proposed trade deal, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, that would allow companies to sue foreign countries through an extra-judicial tribunal made up of three for-profit arbitrators.

If that sounds a little hard-to-follow, that’s because it is. But Warren’s street cred with liberals is strong enough that they tend to take her lead even when the argument can’t be summed up in a simple bumper sticker slogan.

Provisions for these tribunals — known as an investor-state dispute system, or ISDS — have appeared in more than 3,000 trade deals, including the North American Free Trade Agreement, since the 1950s, according to Jeff Zients, the director of the National Economic Council.

But Warren argues that it’s different this time around. For one, the Trans-Pacific Partnership is enormous. It includes the U.S. and 11 other countries, including Japan, Australia and Chile, oversees a whopping 40% of the world’s total annual GDP, and it’s irreversible: once we’re in it, there’s no getting out.

And for another, she claims that ISDS isn’t what it used to be. Two decades ago, when NAFTA was ratified, multi-national corporations were smaller and less powerful than they are today. Her case is that as those interests have gotten bigger and bigger, they’ve gotten more litigious: in the four decades from 1959 to 2002, there were fewer than 100 ISDS cases world wide. Between 2010 and 2013 alone, there were more than 200.

“Recent cases include a French company that sued Egypt because Egypt raised its minimum wage, a Swedish company that sued Germany because Germany decided to phase out nuclear power after Japan’s Fukushima disaster, and a Dutch company that sued the Czech Republic because the Czechs didn’t bail out a bank that the company partially owned,” she wrote in a Washington Post op-ed this winter.

In February, John Oliver, the Comedy Central comedian and host of Last Week Tonight who also holds sway with liberals, mocked an effort by the tobacco company, Philip Morris, to use ISDS to reverse public health regulations in Uruguay’s designed to reduce the smoking rate.

President Obama, backed by most Republicans, a majority of Democrats, and the powerful corporate interest groups, like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Business Roundtable, says Warren is just plain wrong. (He’ll be at Nike’s headquarters in Oregon on Friday explaining why the TPP is great.) ISDS is necessary, the deal’s backers argue, to ensure the corporations feel comfortable making direct foreign investments in other countries — particularly those with less well developed court systems.

But policy arguments aside for a moment, will the famous Warren touch work this time around?

In the past, Warren has been successful in taking down very narrow targets. Last fall, she set her sights on Antonio Weiss, the White House’s nominee for Treasury undersecretary for domestic finance, and by January, he’d bowed out. Before that, Warren helped doom Obama’s plan to nominate former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers to head the Federal Reserve.

But Warren’s also had some off-days. She failed, for example, in her effort last December to quash Congress’s unwieldy continuing resolution and omnibus bill — nicknamed the “Cromnibus” — which included provisions that unwound financial regulations.

And the Trans-Pacific Partnership, for better or worse, may have more in common with the latter than the former. Like the Cromnibus, the TPP is huge, unwieldy, and also includes provisions that many Democrats will like.

Plus, there are technical difficulties. If Congress passes what’s known as the “fast-track” bill next week — it’s unclear if they currently have the votes they need — there won’t be any room for debate about which parts to keep, rewrite, amend or scrap. The fast-track bill binds Congress into an up or down vote on the final version of the trade deal.

And if it comes down to a simple “yes” or “no,” Warren’s famous touch, however powerful, might not be enough.

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