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.