Ambitious free trade deals divide Obama, Democrats

Ambitious free trade deals divide Obama, Democrats

WASHINGTON - The Associated Press
Ambitious free trade deals divide Obama, Democrats

President Barack Obama is working to put two major emerging trade deals with Europe and Asia on a fast track to passage. But many congressional Democrats areworking to sidetrack the proposed pacts ahead of this year’s mid-term elections. REUTERS photo

The White House says it will continue to press Congress for authority to speed approval of trade deals even as election-year politics makes the task harder.

The Obama administration is engaged in two difficult trade negotiations, one with Japan and 10 other Pacific nations, and the other a proposed trans-Atlantic deal with European Union nations. The trans-Pacific talks are closer to completion.

President Bill Clinton used such so-called “fast-track” powers to push through the North American Free Trade Agreement among the U.S., Canada and Mexico in 1993. President George W. Bush used fast-track authority to push through Congress the Central American Free Trade Agreement in 2005.

The fast track process, more formally known as “trade promotion authority,” empowers presidents to negotiate trade deals and then present them to Congress for up-or-down votes, with no amendments allowed.

Such trade deals have always been more popular with Republicans than Democrats. That’s largely because business interests aligned with Republicans have always formed the core support for efforts to expand trade, while labor unions traditionally supportive of Democrats claim trade deals like NAFTA have cost U.S. jobs, helping to send them overseas.

International pressure

Politically, what it means is that Republican House Speaker John Boehner is on President Barack Obama’s side this time. Fast-track critics Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and former House Speaker Rep. Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic congressional leaders, are working against the president from their own party and opposition to the trade deals is more pronounced on the Democratic side.

Late last year, 151 House Democrats, roughly three-quarters of the chamber’s Democratic membership, signed a letter to Obama signaling their opposition to granting him fast-track trade authority.

In the past, Obama has not been an ardent supporter of the fast-track process. Even without fast track, Obama was able to win congressional passage of free-trade pacts with Colombia, Panama and South Korea the old-fashioned way in 2011. And he has yet to make a high-profile major push for renewal of the powers since his State of the Union comments. If ratified, the proposals, the Trans-Atlantic and Trans-Pacific Trade and Investment Partnerships, would create the largest free-trade zone in the world, covering roughly half of global trade.

But the free-trade talks are generating strong emotions at home and abroad.

Many Democrats up for re-election in November are concerned about lost jobs that are important to labor unions and are abandoning Obama on this issue. Meanwhile, some European allies are pushing back, still peeved over recent disclosures of National Security Agency surveillance of them. A fast-track bill may be “ready to go” in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives but certainly isn’t in the Democratic-led Senate.