TIME global trade

Why Democrats Overcame In-Fighting on Trade

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.

President Obama’s trade agenda overcame a setback Wednesday in the Senate, showing a blocked vote 24 hours earlier was more of a negotiating strategy by centrist Democrats than a death-blow to the prospects for a trans-Pacific trade deal.

Given the stakes, that’s not entirely surprising: the single biggest factor in how well most human beings live in 20 years will be the economic balance of power between China and the U.S. Figuring out how best to set that balance to America’s advantage is what the Senate debate is all about.

The Trans-Pacific Partnership is being negotiated in secret and few know what is actually in it. But the general purpose is to get 12 countries in Asia and the Americas, which together account for 40% of the world’s production of goods and services, to agree to a broad set of rules for trade and business. Supporters say standardizing those rules would make it easier for Americans to sell things abroad and cheaper to buy things here.

At the same time, China, India and other countries that aren’t part of the TPP talks are trying to cut their own deals to give their companies and consumers an edge. Whoever does it best gets the most benefits, the argument goes.

Opponents of the deal say these so-called “efficient markets” are just jargon for cutting corners on labor, environmental and human rights standards. Competing with China to cut trade deals ends up being a race to the bottom, they say. Instead, they argue that Americans would do better if the Obama Administration set high standards even if that made it harder to compete with other countries.

The problem with that argument is that as China grows ever-more powerful, the world is increasingly happy to ignore high American standards in favor of lower Chinese ones. China’s economy currently produces around $9.24 trillion of goods and services every year; the U.S. weighs in at around $16.7 trillion. Depending on growth rates and inflation, China will likely have the largest economy in the world in a few years and by 2035 it could be way ahead.

That translates into power and influence. Already American allies and enemies alike have shown they will side with China when there is cash at stake. In March, for example, the UK, France, Germany and Italy all defied the U.S. to join a Chinese led development bank.

So how do you set standards and protect American workers while making it easier and cheaper for them to prosper? The centrist bloc of Democrats that stymied Obama yesterday say they want to take a middle path, offering other countries the opportunity to have cheaper trade with the U.S. with somewhat higher standards. The centrists say they’ll vote to pass “fast track” authority if the U.S. also punishes certain kinds of corner-cutting that give countries an unfair advantage in the international markets, such as currency manipulation, lax labor standards and other bad behavior.

Ideologically, that’s not very different from Obama’s position. Which explains why the jubilation on the left after yesterday’s vote was premature. Centrist Democrats reportedly met with the White House to discuss a compromise on tougher standards that would allow “fast track” authority to move ahead. By mid-afternoon Wednesday, a deal had been struck.

Whether that will ultimately keep America competitive with the fast-growing China is another question.

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.

TIME Foreign Policy

Senate Passes Bill to Review Iran Nuclear Deal

Sen. Bob Corker
Bill Clark—CQ-Roll Call/Getty Images Sen. Bob Corker, Senate Foreign Relations chairman, arrives for a briefing on Iran nuclear negotiations with Secretary of State John Kerry and President Obama's chief of staff Jack Lew in the Capitol on April 14, 2015.

Bill to give Congress oversight of the nuclear plan passes Senate

The Senate on Thursday passed a bill that will give Congress a key stake in conversations on the pending nuclear deal with Iran.

Republicans and some Democrats in Congress have been pushing for oversight of the pending deal given that current proposals include relief from some of the sanctions placed on Iran by Congress. The bill that passed Thursday requires that Congress be able to review and possibly reject any deal the U.S. and world powers make with Iran regarding nuclear weapons. If Congress approves of the deal — or fails to disapprove within a certain timeframe — the President’s deal can move forward.

“No bill, no review. No bill, no oversight,” Sen. Bob Corker said on the Senate floor Thursday. “The American people want the U.S. Senate and House on their behalf to ensure that Iran is accountable.”

The effort to pass the deal, however, was hard wrought. Senators proposed a number of amendments to the bill that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell initially signaled would be up for a robust debate. On Thursday, lawmakers reached a bipartisan agreement to proceed with a vote without many of the proposed amendments. The only “no” vote came from freshman Sen. Tom Cotton, an Arkansas Republican.

The bill also faced backlash from the White House initially, but in mid April White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said the President would be open to signing the compromise bill. The bill will now head to the House of Representatives for a vote.

While the debate continues, however, some lawmakers have signaled their support for the President’s negotiations with Iran. In a letter first reported on by the Washington Post, 150 Democrats urged Obama to “stay on course” and commended the work of world powers so far in the process.

“The stakes are too great and the alternatives are too dire,” the letter reads. “If the United States were to abandon negotiations or cause their collapse, not only would we fail to peacefully prevent the nuclear-armed Iran, we would make that outcome more likely.”

The Washington Post reports that the letter could mean the President has enough Congressional support to override a veto should lawmakers vote to reject the deal once it is released in June.

TIME White House

Why Obama’s Visit to Nike Bothers Liberals

President Barack Obama arrives at the Oregon Air National Guard Base ahead of a fundraiswer at Nike, in Portland on May 7, 2015.
Brendan Smialowski—AFP/Getty Images President Barack Obama arrives at the Oregon Air National Guard Base ahead of a fundraiswer at Nike, in Portland on May 7, 2015.

If there’s one thing the liberal, activist base can agree on, it’s that they hate President Obama’s proposed trade deal, the Trans-Pacific Partnership. They argue that it would transfer hundreds of thousands of decent American jobs to developing countries, like Vietnam, where workers, laboring under poor conditions, make pennies an hour.

And if there’s a second thing that liberal can agree on, it’s that the multinational sports outfitter, Nike, which conducts virtually all of its manufacturing in Asia and Mexico, is perhaps the world’s most powerful symbol, fairly or not, of precisely this kind of exploitation of cheap overseas labor, to the detriment of the American worker.

So Obama’s decision to visit Nike to promote the trade deal Thursday has liberals completely baffled.

“It’s crazy,” said Neil Sroka, the communications director of Democracy for America, a liberal advocacy group. “It would almost be funny on its face, if it weren’t such a sad indication of how out of touch the White House is on this issue with the lived experience of the American people.”

T.J. Helmstetter of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee added that “President Obama’s position on the TPP is misguided, as evidenced by his visit to Nike, which pays workers overseas so little they can’t afford to buy the shoes they’re making.”

Campaign for America’s Future, another liberal group opposed to the trade deal, is organizing a protest outside of Nike’s headquarters on Friday.

The White House, for its part, is making the case that visiting Nike — famous precisely because of its embrace of globalization — makes perfect sense. The president is expected to argue that the trade deal will reduce prices for American consumers by cutting tariffs on things like imported Nike sportswear.

“By allowing our trading partners to produce the goods in which they are relatively more efficient, the United States can import at lower prices than would prevail if we were to use our scarce resources to produce the goods ourselves,” economic advisers at the White House wrote in a report this month.

The trade deal, the advisers explained, would set new, higher standards for labor conditions, environmental protections and copyright. In exchange, lower tariffs at the U.S. border would make it easier to import Asian-made products — including Nike clothing and shoes. The U.S. imported $987.41 billion in goods and services from the Asia-Pacific region in 2012, according to the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis.

It’s an argument that is no doubt music to the ears of the corporate leadership at Nike, where 56% of the company’s revenue comes from outside Mexico, the United States and Canada, according to the company’s filings.

But labor groups, environmentalists, liberals, and some Tea Party Republicans say that argument doesn’t take into account the reality of average Americans.

“The argument doesn’t make any sense for struggling workers and their families,” said Sroka. “If you can’t get a job because companies like Nike are shipping their jobs to Vietnam where they’re can pay workers less, then it matters very little to you that your shoes are going to be two bucks less.”

Dave Johnson, a senior fellow at the progressive Campaign For America’s Future, made a more populist argument. “Phil Knight, head of Nike, is now worth $23 billion because America’s trade policies encourage companies like Nike to create and move jobs outside of the U.S.,” he wrote. “The 23rd-richest American is one more symbol of the kind of inequality that results from outsourcing enabled and encouraged by these trade policies. Workers here lose (or never get) jobs; workers there are paid squat; a few people become vastly, unimaginably wealthy.”

For the last two decades, Nike has come under consistent fire from civil rights and anti-globalization groups for operating sweatshops that exploit weak labor laws and employ children. As recently as last year, the company was criticized for abusing workers in Indonesia and underpaying workers in China.

Nike says it now operates all its factories above board. “Nike fully supports the inclusion of strong labor provisions” in trade deals, the company said in a statement. “We’ve made significant improvements and driven positive change for workers in contract factories that make Nike product.”

If the TPP is approved it will include 12 nations, including Japan, Australia, New Zealand and Chile, and oversee 40% of the world’s total GDP. Obama’s trip this Friday comes just as Congress is debating the passage of “fast track” legislation, which would give Congress only an up-or-down vote on the trade deal, with no ability to tinker with the details.

Obama and his allies on trade, which include Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden and the vast majority of the Republican establishment, have argued that “fast track” legislation is necessary to smooth the way for the TPP. Congress is expected to vote on the fast track next week.

TIME Congress

Political Candidates Took 7,625 Uber Rides in the Last Election

Uber At $40 Billion Valuation Would Eclipse Twitter And Hertz
Bloomberg—Bloomberg via Getty Images The Uber Technologies Inc. logo is displayed on the window of a vehicle after dropping off a passenger at Ronald Reagan National Airport (DCA) in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Wednesday, Nov. 26, 2014.

Sen. Al Franken has “serious concerns” about Uber’s commitment to riders’ privacy, for which company executives have, in his estimation, shown “troubling disregard.”

The on-demand car booking service, Franken further asserted in a letter to the company, has used customers’ information for “questionable purposes,” such as tracking the travels of journalists and businesspeople.

But the Democrat from Minnesota has another distinction: Like numerous other federal politicians that could help or harm the upstart tech firm’s business fortunes, Franken is himself an Uber client.

In all, about 275 federal political committees together spent more than $278,000 on at least 7,625 Uber rides during the 2013-2014 election cycle, a Center for Public Integrity analysis of campaign spending records indicates.

That’s a roughly 18-fold spending increase from the previous election cycle, when federal committees together spent about $15,000 on Uber services. It represents a veritable monopoly, too: Almost no political committee used Uber’s direct competitors, Lyft and Sidecar, according to the analysis, and traditional taxi use declined precipitously.

Bipartisan love of Uber abounds, with politicos of all stripes composing a de facto Uber caucus, voting with their money for a wildly popular but controversial company.

Users include Democrats such as House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz; Republicans such as Sens. Rand Paul and Ted Cruz; and a host of political action committees, super PACs and national party committees.

“Uber is the most safest, most reliable and convenient transportation option,” company spokeswoman Natalia Montalvo said when asked why politicians of all philosophical leanings are so readily embracing its services.

Uber itself has also become decidedly political of late.

Most notably, Uber has hired dozens of lobbyists and former political operatives — top President Barack Obama adviser David Plouffe among the latter — to plumb the pathways of power both in Washington, D.C., and most of the nation’s statehouses.

Much is at stake for the 6-year-old company: Its “ride share” services are still unsanctioned or even illegal in some communities, and Uber has at once aggressively sought governments’ approval to legally do business — while minimizing the kinds of strict operational rules and regulations that taxi and other ground transportation companies must often comply with.

Company officials, who regularly tout Uber as a way to reduce drunk driving and boost local economies, have also sought to calm political nerves following a jolt of bad publicity.

Uber drivers have been accused of and arrested for sexual and other assaults. In November, a top Uber executive threatened to publicize details about the personal life of a female news website editor who had publicly criticized Uber. The company has also caught heat for its use of “God view” — an interface that allows some employees to track the movements of its clients, politicians included. Its chief executive, Travis Kalanick, devilishly told Vanity Fair in December that he’s “like fire and brimstone sometimes” when sparring with detractors.

At the federal level, Uber spent $200,000 last year on government lobbying efforts and has already spent $110,000 during this year’s first quarter, according to federal records. (Lyft, which didn’t return requests for comment, has spent $40,000 so far this year.)

Uber in 2015 has used one in-house and seven contract lobbyists to, in its own words, lobby on “issues related to expanded consumer choice and small business opportunities through app-based technology,” among other concerns. Several of them previously worked for members of Congress, according to OpenSecrets.org.

Meanwhile, Uber lobbyists advocate for the company in 45 out of the nation’s 50 statehouses, a Center for Public Integrity analysis of state lobbying registration records indicates.

Maine, New Jersey, New Mexico, South Dakota and Wyoming are the only states where Uber doesn’t appear to have formally registered lobbyists operating on its behalf.

This much is certain: Uber has indeed begun reshaping the way political candidates and campaign staff mobilize resources and move themselves around, said Matt McDonald, a partner at Washington, D.C.-based consulting firm Hamilton Place Strategies, which last year published a white paper about Uber and politicians that asserted, “The nature of oversight changes when someone is both regulator and consumer.”

And that, McDonald added, “is all for the better if you’re Uber.”

Privacy practices concern Franken

Politicians’ shades-of-gray relationships with Uber contrast with red-and-blue Washington, D.C.’s frequent black-or-white stances on all sorts of issues: immigration, taxation, oil pipelines, same-sex marriage.

Take Franken, among the U.S. Senate’s most outspoken critics of Uber.

An aide readily acknowledged the company’s utility, both for his governmental and campaign offices.

“He still believes the company has not adequately answered his questions about some of its privacy practices and continues to have concerns about how its employees access, retain, and share customer data,” Franken spokesman Ed Shelleby said, while also noting that “no prohibition for services like Uber, formal or informal, exists in either office, and Sen. Franken himself has taken Uber.”And even the most ardent Uber supporters, such as Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., who mentions the company when lauding the “democratizing force of technology” and is sometimes personally courted by the company when traveling, today sound notes of caution when discussing it. No U.S. Senate campaign spent more money on Uber last cycle than that of Booker, which ran a $4,689 tab.

Booker “believes ride hailing services can provide good quality, competitively-priced, reliable transportation to customers but shouldn’t be exempt from regulations that ensure consumer safety and privacy,” said spokeswoman Silvia Alvarez, adding that the senator and his staff use a variety of transportation options, “from taxis and Uber to New Jersey Transit, Amtrak and the subway.”

Some of Uber’s top users simply don’t want to discuss the company at all anymore.

The campaign committee of Rep. Gwen Moore, D-Wis., spent more on Uber services last election cycle — nearly $17,000 — than any other federal political committee. The committee reported 835 Uber transactions during 2013 and 2014, or more than one per day.

Moore personally takes Uber rides because she doesn’t have a car in Washington, D.C., and underwent two knee surgeries in 2013, her office told The Wall Street Journal last year, prior to some of the company’s PR flaps.

Moore’s office declined to comment on whether Moore is concerned about Uber’s privacy standards or business practices.

“This week, our focus has and will continue to be the federal budget and the reauthorization of the Export-Import Bank,” spokesman Eric Harris told the Center for Public Integrity.

Emily’s List, a political committee that advocates for Democratic women who support abortion rights, ranked No. 2 in spending — $12,675 — on Uber services during the 2013-2014 election cycle. Representatives there did not return requests for comment.

Other political committees that spent at least $7,000 last election cycle on Uber rides are the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, liberal super PAC American Bridge 21st Century, the Republican National Committee, the Democratic National Committee, the National Republican Senatorial Committee and the National Republican Congressional Committee.

Politicians are certainly free to travel as they please, said Kansas state Rep. Scott Schwab, a Republican and chairman of the Kansas House Insurance Committee.

But Schwab, who backed a bill that aimed to impose tough safety and insurance regulations in Kansas on Uber and similar companies, says the company isn’t concerned about what’s best for the state’s residents.

Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback, a fellow Republican, vetoed the bill last month in the name of “an open and free marketplace.”

Then last week, Uber hired Brownback’s former campaign manager as a lobbyist.

“They don’t really want to see leaders govern or the will of the people prevail in making good policy,” Schwab said of Uber. “I have never seen any company operate like that …. They just want to win like it is a knock-down, drag-out primary campaign.”

Back in Washington, D.C., Addis Gebreselassie, vice chairman of the Washington, D.C. Taxi Operators Association, likewise wants politicians to believe that Uber, for its talk of innovation and positive disruption, is more destructive than anything.

While taxi drivers in the nation’s capital are heavily regulated, from the fares they may charge to how they’re licensed and insured, Uber drivers are not, Gebreselassie argued.

He called on federal politicians, in the name of fairness, to stop using Uber. He also appealed to lawmakers’ safety, saying they’re putting themselves and their staffers at risk by taking rides from lightly regulated drivers who might be inexperienced, or worse, dangerous.

“We don’t want to see anyone get hurt,” Gebreselassie said. “But maybe they won’t see what’s happening here until a big accident happens.”

He sighed.

“How painful it is to be here in the United States, in Washington, D.C., and be treated like you’re in the Third World,” he said.

Convenience wins out

Perhaps it’s because hailing a car through Uber’s mobile app is more convenient, and less harried, than calling a cab.

Maybe members of the political class have endured one too many trips with a taxi driver who couldn’t follow directions, or wasn’t hygienic, or seemed more concerned with yakking on his cell phone than stopping at stop signs.

Whatever the reason, Uber doom-saying and Uber bashing isn’t much affecting the steady march of politicians toward its services, even if its top users appear more reluctant to wax effusive about the company.

Already this year, several dozen federal political campaigns and committees have reported taking trips through Uber, federal records show, even if the teeth of the 2016 election season remain months away. Taxi use is less common than Uber use so far this year.

The company has already run a variety of specials around elections and political gatherings — to new users, a free ride on Election Day, for example — and McDonald of Hamilton Place Strategies predicts the 2016 election could be rife with Uber innovation.

Think software that allows campaigns to book Uber rides for voters, gratis. Or loyalty programs that further sweeten the experience of Uber transport.

“To the extent that campaigns can use these tools to their advantage, they will,” he said. “For taxi services, maybe this is a situation where you want to change the fundamental quality of your product, because you can’t fake your way through this.”

Kalanick, the Uber chief executive, explained in a recent company blog post why the firm will continue to assert itself in the political arena.

“Our roots are technology, not politics, writing code and rolling out transportation systems,” Kalanick wrote. “The result is that not enough people here in America and around the world know our story, our mission, and the positive impact we’re having.”

He’ll have plenty of surrogates on the campaign trail.

Chief among them: Jim Messina, who ran Obama’s successful re-election campaign and has called Uber “one of the most innovative companies in America.”

Messina’s on Uber’s payroll as a consultant.

He’s also a leader of Priorities USA Action, the chief super PAC backing Democrat Hillary Clinton’s presidential bid.

Alexander Cohen and Reity O’Brien contributed to this report

TIME Japan

Japan’s Shinzo Abe Is Talking in Washington — but He Needs to Talk to Asia

Shinzo Abe, Joe Biden, John Boehner
Carolyn Kaster—AP Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe speaks before a joint meeting of Congress, April 29, 2015, on Capitol Hill in Washington.

The Japanese Prime Minister is a hit in Washington, but the reaction in China and South Korea will matter more

Shinzo Abe landed in the U.S. this week to great fanfare. Delivering the first-ever speech by a Japanese Prime Minister to a joint session of Congress, Abe proclaimed his resolve to “to take yet more responsibility for the peace and stability in the world.” Japan is busy trying to shape a new foreign policy course for itself after years of relative isolation on the geopolitical stage, a result of its pacifist constitution that dates back to its defeat and occupation by the U.S. after World War II.

Yet while much attention has been focused on Abe’s overture to Washington, just as critical to Japan’s re-emergence on the global stage is its relationship with its Asian neighbors — especially China and South Korea. How these two economic powers respond to a more assertive Japan will go a long way in determining how far Abe’s ambitions will take Tokyo.

After decades of hostility, Japan-China relations have markedly improved over the past six months. Abe and Chinese President Xi Jinping have had productive encounters over the past two years, and have agreed to keep the lines of communication open going forward. China and Japan have both promised to use “dialogue and consultation” to deal with territorial disputes in the East China Sea and to work towards developing crisis mechanisms to avoid escalation.

While this might not sound like much, it is a significant achievement for two Asian heavyweights who have long been at each other’s throats. China’s rise casts a long shadow over all of Asia, but Japan has signaled a willingness to collaborate, boding well for the future. Japan’s dramatically improved relationship with India should also make China cautious in its dealings with Japan. There remain a host of issues to work out — particularly over Japan’s actions during World War II — but the China-Japan relationship now has the best trajectory of any bilateral relationship in the G20.

Yet for all the progress Japan has made with China, its relationship with South Korea — technically an ally — remains strained. The trilateral relationship among the U.S., Japan and South Korea is critical to American plans for the region, but historical disputes have threatened this framework. During World War II, South Korean women were forced to work for the occupying Japanese army as “comfort women” — a euphemism for sex slaves.

While Abe said in a speech at Harvard University on Monday that his “heart aches even now” for the victims, he has stopped short of officially recognizing and apologizing for the practice, as Seoul has demanded. Abe maintains that previous government apologies for Japanese wartime aggressions are sufficient. The South Koreans clearly disagree, with a Korean newspaper denouncing Abe as “the root of the problem” on its front page this week. With a sputtering economy and a government weakened by scandal — South Korea’s Prime Minister resigned on April 27 after bribery accusations — it is no wonder that Seoul is eyeing Japan’s aspirations warily.

The U.S. has tried to stay out of this charged dispute, and is taking a page from its playbook with another key American ally: Turkey. Out of concerns for Turkish feelings, President Obama has refrained from uttering the G word to describe the mass killing of Armenians in Turkey early in the last century. That caution — even though most historians accept that a genocide occurred — is calculated to avoid damaging a strategically important relationship.

In Japan, Abe has the political capital to apologize for historical aggression, but chooses not to. Japan is too important to Obama’s “pivot to Asia” strategy to risk estranging its leaders, especially with the critical Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal on the horizon.

If the pivot to Asia is to succeed and Japan’s new foreign policy ambitions are to be realized, America’s democratic allies in Asia need to find a way to move forward. Abe is talking in the U.S., but what matters is whether Asia is listening.

TIME Japan

Japanese Premier Dodges WWII, Pushes Trade Deal in Address to Congress

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe speaks to a joint meeting of the US Congress while flanked by Vice President Joseph Biden (L) and House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) (R) in the House chamber of the US Capitol on April 29, 2015 in Washington.
Mark Wilson—Getty Images Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe speaks to a joint meeting of the US Congress while flanked by Vice President Joseph Biden (L) and House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) (R) in the House chamber of the US Capitol on April 29, 2015 in Washington.

Pledges New Military Cooperation

For the first time in history, a Japanese Prime Minister addressed a joint session of Congress Wednesday. And 70 years after the end of World War II, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe avoided an explicit apology for the war’s worst tragedies, focusing instead on the turnaround between the two countries and their efforts to strengthen their military and economic ties.

“The peace and security of the post-war world was not possible without American leadership,” said Abe. “That’s the path for Japan to ally itself with the U.S., and to go forward as a member of the Western world.”

“We support the ‘rebalancing’ by the U.S. in order to enhance the peace and security of the Asia-Pacific region,” he said. “We will support the U.S. effort first, last, and throughout.”

Abe stuck closely to his script and spent much of the speech, titled “Toward an Alliance of Hope,” looking forward. As Congress prepares to debate the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a major trade deal that would affect 12 countries and 40% of the world’s GDP, Abe called for a “successful conclusion” to the multi-party negotiations. “We must take the lead to build a market that is fair, dynamic, sustainable, and is also free from the arbitrary intentions of any nation,” he said. “Long-term, its strategic value is awesome. We should never forget that.”

Abe said the U.S. and Japan would strike a historic deal this summer further uniting the military cooperation between the U.S. and Japan. And he underscored what he said was a peaceful strategy to resolve a simmering fight over disputed territories with China in the South China Sea.

On the darkest time in U.S-Japan relations, WWII, Abe expressed sorrow for Japanese actions. His sentiments received a standing ovation, despite the feeling among some members, including Japanese-American Rep. Mike Honda, that Japan should issue an unequivocal apology for Japan’s subjugation of “comfort women” during the war. Abe said he visited the WWII memorial before the speech and “gasped” after learning that the thousands of gold stars there each represent the lives of 100 fallen soldiers. An American soldier who landed in Iwo Jima sat next to a member of Abe’s cabinet, whose grandfather fought in that bloody battle.

“History is harsh,” said Abe. “What is done cannot be undone. With deep repentance in my heart, I stood there in silent prayers for some time…On behalf of Japan and the Japanese people, I offer with profound respect my eternal condolences to the souls of all American people that were lost during World War II.”

“Armed conflicts have always made women suffer the most,” he added. “In our age, we must realize the kind of world where finally women are free from human rights abuses.”

While a recent poll found that over 70% of Americans had never heard of Abe, his speech revealed a personal familiarity with their country, dropping references to filibusters, Gary Cooper and Abe Lincoln. He noted his time as a student in California eating Italian food and ended his speech quoting Carole King, who sung “a song that flew out and shook my heart.” Acknowledging U.S. aid after a devastating tsunami hit Japan in 2011, Abe said, “Yes, we’ve got a friend in you.”

TIME Sen. Marco Rubio

The Marco Rubio Amendment That Could Kill the Iran Deal

Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL).
Andrew Burton—Getty Images Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL).

Sen. Marco Rubio has proposed a change to the Iran nuclear review bill that could unravel a carefully crafted compromise and kill the Obama Administration’s negotiations.

At issue is a one-page amendment from the Florida Republican and 2016 presidential candidate that would certify as part of the deal that Iran’s leaders have publicly accepted Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state, a proposal earlier pushed by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Earlier this month, President Obama rejected that idea. “The notion that we would condition Iran not getting nuclear weapons in a verifiable deal on Iran recognizing Israel is really akin to saying that we won’t sign a deal unless the nature of the Iranian regime completely transforms,” the president told NPR. “And that is, I think, a fundamental misjudgment. I want to return to this point: We want Iran not to have nuclear weapons precisely because we can’t bank on the nature of the regime changing. That’s exactly why we don’t want to have nuclear weapons.”

Many Republicans support the idea, however, while some influential Democrats, such as New York Sen. Chuck Schumer, have declined to comment on any amendments.

“If it gets offered, that’s a very hard vote because we all support Israel’s right to exist and Iran recognizing that,” says South Dakota Republican Sen. John Thune. “I think that’s awfully hard to vote against but we’ll see how it is structured and if it happens or not.”

After 18 months of negotiations, U.S., Britain, China, France, Russia, Germany and Iran struck a framework agreement on April 2 to limit Iran’s ability to build a nuclear weapon in exchange for reducing economic sanctions. The negotiators now have about two months to meet their June 30 deadline to seal a comprehensive accord and find a compromise to major issues, including the level of enriched uranium Iran is allowed to stockpile and the pace of the repealed sanctions.

The bipartisan Senate bill prevents the president from waiving Congress’ economic sanctions against Iran for up to 52 days after submitting the agreement’s text to Congress. The Obama Administration had pushed back on the congressional oversight but relented after changes to the bill and evidence that the bill would receive a wave of support. On Tuesday, Tennessee Republican Sen. Bob Corker and Maryland Democratic Sen. Ben Cardin announced that their bill has a veto-proof 67 co-sponsors.

But Cardin and others believe that Rubio could upend the bill if he introduces his controversial amendment for a vote. The powerful pro-Israel lobby AIPAC is taking Obama’s side in fear that it might bring the overall deal down, according to Thune. An AIPAC official told TIME that they are requesting senators to “bear in mind” the need to retain consensus and to “refrain from supporting provisions that could harm that bipartisan support.” The official added that AIPAC is supporting the leadership of Corker and Cardin, who says that the Rubio amendment could do three things: derail the bill, hurt the Administration’s negotiations and help Iran. “All three are horrible results,” says Cardin.

Corker urged his Republican colleagues during lunch Tuesday to understand the precious balance of the deal.

“Let’s not snatch defeat from the jaws of victory here,” Corker, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman, told TIME.

Rubio’s office declined to comment.

Your browser is out of date. Please update your browser at http://update.microsoft.com