Troubles for trade: Obama’s fast-track plans face resistance

Cranes for containers on the Seattle waterfront.
Cranes for containers on the Seattle waterfront. McClatchy

After criticizing a U.S. trade deal with Mexico and Canada when he ran for the White House, Barack Obama has emerged as one of the most aggressive pro-trade presidents ever, angering many of his fellow Democrats along the way.

In his first term, he got Congress to pass new agreements with South Korea, Panama and Colombia, after launching a highly touted plan to double U.S. exports under his watch. Now he wants to expand trade in Europe and the Pacific Rim to try to create more jobs for Americans.

The president’s ambitious plans are causing increased nervousness on Capitol Hill, where they face growing resistance from Democrats and Republicans alike.

A key test of Obama’s clout in the new year will be whether he can get Congress to approve a bill, introduced Thursday, that would give him special trade-promotion authority known as “fast track,” which he wants in order to limit congressional debate and force quick votes on his big new pacts.

While major corporations such as Boeing, Wal-Mart and Exxon Mobil have teamed up to help the president promote his plan, opponents are banking on a high-profile defeat for Obama on a top priority of his second term.

In the 435-member House of Representatives, where 218 votes are enough to kill a bill, 188 members _ 27 Republicans and 161 Democrats _ already are on record expressing reservations, said Lori Wallach, the director of Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch, who’s counting votes as the fight heats up.

“The prospects are very dim,” said Wallach, who opposes fast-track authority and wrote a book on the subject last year.

Wallach said the president was running into bipartisan opposition due to hardening attitudes that had developed since the North American Free Trade Agreement took effect in January 1994. Critics blame that deal for expanding the U.S. trade deficit and chasing thousands of American jobs to Mexico, where companies found lower-wage workers.

“After 20 years of seeing how NAFTA worked out, you have a lot of members of Congress who are very skeptical of doing more of the same, particularly of giving the president a blank check through the fast-track procedure,” Wallach said.

Trade backers face another complication: Democrat Max Baucus of Montana, the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, could soon become Obama’s ambassador to China, depriving Congress of one of its most important backers of fast-track authority. Baucus introduced the long-awaited fast track bill Thursday, along with Republican Rep. Dave Camp of Michigan, who leads the House Ways and Means Committee.

The battle is creating some unusual alliances.

Longtime liberal trade opponents have won support from conservative Republicans such as Reps. Walter Jones of North Carolina and Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, who circulated a letter last fall urging Congress not to cede too much power to Obama.

On the opposite side, Republican pro-traders such as Rep. Dave Reichert of Washington state are reaching out to the president, telling him he needs to step up his lobbying to save his trade agenda.

And Obama, who aroused strong opposition from many businesses for advancing his health care plans, has some of the country’s most powerful corporations working hard to push his trade proposals.

Backers acknowledge that it will be a difficult fight. But they’re convinced they can prevail, first in getting Congress to pass fast track and then using it to approve what would be the largest trade deal in history: the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a proposed pact with 11 other countries that would cover more than 40 percent of the world’s gross domestic product.

“I think we’ll get it done,” said Reichert, who’s a member of the President’s Export Council, a committee that advises Obama on trade issues. But, he said, “there’s a lot of education that needs to be accomplished” to get more members of Congress to understand how fast track works.

Fast-track authority has been a popular cause for presidents since the days of Richard Nixon; George W. Bush last got Congress to approve such authority in 2002, but it expired in 2007. If Obama gets it, he’d be allowed to sign international trade treaties and force Congress to vote on them with no amendments or filibusters allowed. The Baucus-Camp bill would allow only 20 hours of debate on such treaties.

Trade backers say members of Congress need to weigh in before trade negotiations are finalized and then leave the details to the president.

“We’re giving him the authority to negotiate on the U.S.’s behalf, because you can’t have 435 members of the House and 100 senators negotiate a trade agreement,” Reichert said. “The way trade agreements work, really, is that we have our input up front.”

Opponents say that’s giving the president too much authority to shape deals and leaving Congress with no way to make changes.

“I just very strongly believe that these are areas that should have congressional oversight,” said California Rep. Jeff Denham, one of 23 Republicans who signed the Jones-Bachmann letter.

Denham predicted that a fast-track bill “will have a tough time getting through the House” and garnering majority support from either party.

“Obviously, there have been a great deal of Democrats that have voiced their opinions against this, and I think from the Republican side there are real trust issues with this president,” he said.

Wallach said the 188 House members who already had raised concerns didn’t include many who’d opposed fast track in the past, such as Democratic Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California, the House minority leader. Wallach said she’d be surprised if even 20 of the 200 House Democrats ended up voting for it.

In the biggest display of opposition, 151 House Democrats signed a letter written by Democratic Reps. Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut and George Miller of California saying they’d vote against fast track if they’re excluded from negotiations. Many complain that the administration has kept them in the dark over the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

Reichert, a member of the House Ways and Means Committee and a co-chairman of the new Friends of TPP Caucus, said he and others in the caucus were finalizing a letter to Obama this week and would ask for a private meeting. They want him to start twisting more arms.

“We really need to have the president’s voice to convince some of his party members to get on board with this. . . . I am hoping we can get some time to talk with him,” Reichert said.

Republican House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio, who supports fast-track authority, delivered the same message at a news conference Thursday, saying “at some point, the president needs to stand up and lead.”

Obama has warmed up to trade considerably since he ran for president in 2008, when he pledged to overhaul trade policies and even proposed to renegotiate NAFTA.

“The president’s approach to trade and globalization issues has been equal parts heartbreaking and disgusting,” Wallach said. “As a candidate, he was very explicit in pledging to replace fast track as an undemocratic process. . . . And then he came into office and became just like Bush and Clinton.”

Wallach said Obama switched gears after surrounding himself with pro-trade advisers, including several who worked in the Bill Clinton administration: “It is fairly endemic that presidents and politicians come here and many of them end up surrounded by bipartisan elite corporate interests. And one of the things they all agree on is that these kind of trade agreements are highly profitable.”

The president’s evolution has been welcome for many business interests, who are pleased that he plans to push his trade plans even in a tough year of midterm elections.

“When we look at the beginning of the Obama administration and we look now,” it’s clear that the president and his administration are “all-in” on trade, said Charles Dittrich, the vice president of regional trade initiatives for the National Foreign Trade Council in Washington.

At a luncheon for reporters at the group’s K Street offices Wednesday, Dittrich predicted that Obama will get Congress to pass a fast-track bill and the Trans-Pacific trade pact by the end of 2014.

“We’re very positive and enthusiastic,” he said.