- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 22, 2013

President Obama has stepped up efforts to negotiate far-reaching trade deals with Asia and Europe in his second term, but he faces an uphill battle next year in Congress to gain the same authority his predecessors had to finalize such agreements.

Without “fast-track” authority, many trade analysts say, Mr. Obama’s hopes to enact trade deals before he leaves office may be doomed. They say longtime opposition to freer trade among congressional Democrats and wariness among some Republicans about giving Mr. Obama such sweeping authority endanger legislation in what could be a cliffhanger vote early next year.

The chairmen of the House and Senate tax-writing committees are negotiating a bipartisan bill to revive fast-track authority, which expired in the seventh year of George W. Bush’s presidency.

Fast-track authority restricts Congress to an up-or-down vote on any presidentially negotiated trade agreements with no opportunity to change them. Trade analysts say no other major country would be willing to negotiate concessions if they knew Congress could amend what is considered to be their final deal.

Mr. Obama must navigate difficult political waters to regain fast-track power.

Ralph Nader’s Public Citizen group, a leading member of the powerful progressive coalition of labor unions and environmentalists opposed to the legislation, has declared it dead on arrival, based on evidence that at least 25 House Republicans and 151 Democrats will vote against it in the 435-member House, where 218 votes are needed to pass.

As in years past, the president will have to rely heavily on Republicans and a smattering of centrist Democrats to win fast-track authority. But that coalition has been frayed by distrust of Mr. Obama among tea party and other conservative groups — one among many signs that the traditional Republican enthusiasm for free trade is waning among the party’s more populist elements.

The fast-track fight is becoming even more urgent as Mr. Obama has entered into two of the most ambitious free trade accords in years: the Trans-Pacific Partnership with 11 other Pacific Rim countries (and possibly two more) and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership with 28 members of the European Union.

“President Obama must seek to win substantial Republican support” if he hopes to get fast-track authority and win approval of a trans-Pacific trade agreement next year, and he will have to act quickly early in the year, said Scott Miller, an analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Polls show declining public support for free trade agreements, which can be difficult even for legislators who believe in opening markets. To avoid the pitfalls of election politics, “the president needs to make this issue his own and exert leadership to get the bill enacted before summer 2014, when the election season kicks into high gear,” Mr. Miller said.

Asia deal in doubt

The lack of fast-track authority has undermined the administration’s effort to secure the Asian trade deal before the end of this year — a goal once espoused by proponents, Mr. Miller said. Other parties to the treaty among nations around the thriving Pacific region — including Vietnam, Canada and Japan — have been wary about making concessions and sensitive trade-offs when Congress could reject, reopen or pick apart the deal under ordinary legislative procedures, Mr. Miller said.

“Given the skepticism of the other parties about the U.S. ability to deliver on its commitments, a final agreement is unlikely” unless Congress first passes Trade Promotion Authority, as the fast-track bill is formally called in Congress, he said.

A defeat of fast-track legislation could deal a debilitating blow to the trans-Pacific deal, which is “at the heart of the administration’s rebalancing strategy” toward Asia, and would seriously damage Mr. Obama’s second-term trade and diplomatic agenda, Mr. Miller said.

“Beyond the lost economic opportunities, lack of a TPP agreement would feed perceptions in Asia that the rebalance is mainly about military positioning,” he said. “It would also raise questions about the U.S. ability to champion the rules of the road in economic affairs.”

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