- Associated Press - Tuesday, April 21, 2015

WASHINGTON (AP) - President Barack Obama hit back at fellow Democrats who oppose his trade initiatives Tuesday, saying they have their facts wrong on the eve of a key Senate vote.

The president’s blunt words came as liberals, labor unions and others stepped up efforts to block his trade proposals, which they say hurt U.S. jobs.

“I would not be doing this trade deal if I did not think it was good for the middle class,” Obama said in an interview with MSNBC. “When you hear folks make a lot of suggestions about how bad this trade deal is, when you dig into the facts, they are wrong.”

Asked particularly about criticisms from Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., Obama said: “I love Elizabeth. We’re allies on a whole host of issues. But she’s wrong on this.”

But several top Democrats aren’t backing down. Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada told reporters, “I’m not only no, I’m hell no” on Obama’s bid for “fast-track” authority.

The Senate Finance Committee plans to vote Wednesday on the fast-track measure. It would renew presidential authority to send Congress trade deals it can endorse or reject, but not amend.

One such proposed pact is the long-negotiated Trans-Pacific Partnership, involving the United States and 11 other nations.

Few issues divide Democrats more than trade. Obama, like former president Bill Clinton, supports free trade, but most Democratic lawmakers do not.

Republicans generally support trade pacts. But Obama can’t count on them alone to push the fiercely debated bills through the GOP-controlled House and Senate.

Clinton’s and Obama’s trade stands - and liberal groups’ opposition - pose a dilemma for Hillary Rodham Clinton, the former first lady now seeking the presidency herself. Campaigning Tuesday in New Hampshire, she declined to say whether she supports the Pacific Rim proposal.

“We need to build things, too,” Clinton said, taking a pro-manufacturing stance generally embraced by both parties. “We have to do our part in making sure we have the capabilities and skills to be competitive,” she said, while getting back to “a much more focused effort, in my opinion, to try to produce those capacities here at home.”

Meanwhile Tuesday, a Senate Finance Committee hearing exposed Democratic divisions. Senators including Sherrod Brown of Ohio and Debbie Stabenow of Michigan reiterated concerns that trade deals help foreign countries more than the United States.

Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., insisted that the administration press China to stop manipulating its currency, even though China isn’t a party to the Pacific Rim negotiations. “I’m disappointed in the efforts by President Obama,” Schumer said.

If a nation keeps its currency value artificially low, it can boost exports by making local products more affordable to foreigners. Economists disagree on whether China still engages in the practice, and the Obama administration says it addresses currency manipulation in the fast track bill.

Several Finance Committee Democrats back the bill. Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia said the United States risks being left on the sidelines of an expanding global economy.

“Let’s not miss the opportunity for America to once again reassert its leadership” in trade, Warner said.

The Chamber of Commerce strongly endorsed the fast track legislation Tuesday, while the AFL-CIO denounced it.

Senate approval of fast track seems likely, but the bill’s fate is less certain in the House. House Democrats overwhelmingly oppose it, and some House Republicans are loath to give new authorities to Obama.

Rep. Sander Levin of Michigan - the top Democrat on the House Ways and Means Committee, which handles trade - strongly opposes the fast track bill. In the Senate, the top Finance Committee Democrat, Ron Wyden of Oregon, supports it.

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Associated Press writers Lisa Lerer in New Hampshire and David Espo and Julie Pace in Washington contributed to this report.

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