‘Fast Track’ Fight Could Dim Obama Hopes on Trade

A cargo ship loads up as US Trade Representative Ron Kirk delivers remarks from the docks of Baltimore harbor on September 20, 2010 about the significance of exports in creating and supporting jobs in Maryland. Kirk discussed President Barack Obama's National Export Initiative, which aims to create two million jobs nationwide by doubling American exports to the world, and the US-Korea Free Trade Agreement. 
National Journal
Billy House
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Billy House
Dec. 16, 2013, 4:09 p.m.

A White House push for con­gres­sion­al ap­prov­al of “fast track” trade pro­mo­tion au­thor­ity is emer­ging as a key early test next year of Pres­id­ent Obama’s already-battered second-term clout on Cap­it­ol Hill, with a main obstacle be­ing the ma­jor­ity of his fel­low Demo­crats in the House.

Op­pos­i­tion to such au­thor­ity ex­ists on the right, too, mak­ing it likely that Obama will have to cobble to­geth­er a co­ali­tion of cent­rist Demo­crats and pro-busi­ness Re­pub­lic­ans for pas­sage of le­gis­la­tion giv­ing the pres­id­ent great­er autonomy in ne­go­ti­at­ing trade agree­ments.

“It’s go­ing to take a fair amount of ef­fort on the pres­id­ent’s part to get it through — a sig­ni­fic­ant amount of arm-twist­ing with Demo­crats. That’s his chal­lenge,” said Gary Huf­bauer, a trade ex­pert at the Peterson In­sti­tute for In­ter­na­tion­al Eco­nom­ics.

“A lot may de­pend on how en­er­get­ic­ally Pres­id­ent Obama per­son­ally weighs in,” Huf­bauer ad­ded.

How much of his ex­ist­ing polit­ic­al cap­it­al the pres­id­ent will have to ex­pend — or will want to ex­pend — in get­ting such ac­tion through Con­gress is un­cer­tain com­ing off the troubled rol­lout of the health care law and the re­volts against his in­ter­im deal on Ir­an and sanc­tions re­lief. Obama has said he needs the trade au­thor­ity, but not nearly as force­fully as he’s talked about im­mig­ra­tion re­form.

In­ter­na­tion­al trade deals must be ap­proved by Con­gress. But un­der fast-track au­thor­ity, law­makers would only be able to hold up-or-down votes on pacts presen­ted by the ad­min­is­tra­tion and would not be able to tinker with the spe­cif­ics of the deals through amend­ments or oth­er changes. Such au­thor­ity is typ­ic­ally seen as es­sen­tial to en­sur­ing oth­er coun­tries that the terms of an agree­ment they have reached can­not be rene­go­ti­ated by Con­gress.

There had been hope with­in the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion, and among some in Con­gress, that ac­tion on trade-pro­mo­tion au­thor­ity le­gis­la­tion would oc­cur be­fore the House and Sen­ate ad­journed for the year. The ad­min­is­tra­tion is now ne­go­ti­at­ing sep­ar­ate trade agree­ments with Pa­cific Rim and European Uni­on na­tions.

But ef­forts to bring such le­gis­la­tion to the House floor this month nev­er ma­ter­i­al­ized, prompt­ing spec­u­la­tion that they were quashed by Speak­er John Boehner, though that is flatly denied by seni­or House GOP aides. In­stead, the aides say House floor ac­tion this year had nev­er been the aim of either Boehner or House Ways and Means Chair­man Dave Camp, R-Mich.

While Camp, and Sen­ate Fin­ance Com­mit­tee Chair­man Max Baucus, D”‘Mont., and rank­ing mem­ber Or­rin Hatch, R-Utah, had agreed on trade “policy,” the aides said, the bill on trade-pro­mo­tion au­thor­ity has not been com­pleted.

But Boehner and Camp are in agree­ment about press­ing ahead in Janu­ary, the aides ad­ded. “We ex­pect a bi­par­tis­an, bicam­er­al TPA bill to be in­tro­duced when Con­gress re­turns. It is one of the first items on the chair­man’s agenda,” Ways and Means spokes­wo­man Sarah Swine­hart said.

“Sen­at­or Baucus has been ready to go for a while, but wants to do so in a bi­par­tis­an man­ner. That is the best way to en­sure pas­sage of le­gis­la­tion,” Fin­ance spokes­man Sean Neary said, adding that the in­tent is to in­tro­duce a bill in early Janu­ary.

Camp also has been among those say­ing the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s “act­ive par­ti­cip­a­tion” will be needed to gain bi­par­tis­an ap­prov­al of trade-pro­mo­tion au­thor­ity. But the con­gres­sion­al op­pos­i­tion is bi­par­tis­an as well. More than 150 House Demo­crats led by Rosa De­Lauro of Con­necti­c­ut and George Miller of Cali­for­nia have signed let­ters stat­ing their op­pos­i­tion to Con­gress giv­ing up its say on the terms of trade agree­ments.

Many of these Demo­crats are pro-labor law­makers, who warn that po­ten­tial deals such as the Trans-Pa­cific Part­ner­ship threaten Amer­ic­an work­ers and man­u­fac­tur­ers. “As his­tory has taught us, we can’t af­ford to give up our con­sti­tu­tion­al au­thor­ity to pro­tect Amer­ic­an jobs by amend­ing flawed trade agree­ments,” De­Lauro and Miller warned earli­er this month.

Mean­while, 23 House Re­pub­lic­ans have signed a let­ter cir­cu­lated by Reps. Wal­ter Jones, R-N.C., and Michele Bach­mann, R”‘Minn., stat­ing their op­pos­i­tion, ar­guing that the Con­sti­tu­tion gives Con­gress ex­clus­ive au­thor­ity to set the terms of trade pacts.

“The Founders es­tab­lished this clear check and bal­ance to pre­vent the pres­id­ent from uni­lat­er­ally ne­go­ti­at­ing with for­eign na­tions and im­pos­ing trade policies that Con­gress would deem to be against the na­tion­al in­terest,” that let­ter stated.

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