The White House scrambled Thursday to salvage two major trade deals after Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, the chamber's top Democrat, broke publicly with the administration over granting President Obama the ability to negotiate new free-trade deals.
Without so-called "fast-track" negotiating authority, trade analysts give Mr. Obama no practical hopes of clinching major market-opening deals with a group of Pacific Rim economies or with the European Union by the end of his term.
Mr. Obama's aides offered assurances to skeptical elements in the president's Democratic base that the trade pacts would protect the rights of U.S. workers and safeguard the environment. They said the president will continue to lobby lawmakers about the merits of the pending trade agreements.
"We will not cede this important opportunity for American workers and businesses to our competitors," said White House press secretary Jay Carney.
But it was unclear whether the administration could recover from the damage inflicted by Mr. Reid, Nevada Democrat, who announced Wednesday that he opposes giving the president "fast-track" authority — sharply limiting the rights of lawmakers to an up-or-down vote on trade deals, without amendments — to negotiate new trade deals. Labor unions have considerable clout in Nevada.
"I'm against fast track," Mr. Reid said. "I think everyone would be well-advised just not to push this right now."
The president had urged lawmakers just a day earlier in his State of the Union address to grant him the authority, saying the trade agreements would boost U.S. exports and strengthen the economy, creating more jobs in the process. Mr. Obama has set a goal of doubling U.S. exports by 2015.
Fast-track authority expired in 2007 under President George W. Bush, and the main opposition to reviving it has come from members of the president's own party in Congress. House Republican leaders, speaking at a GOP retreat Thursday in Cambridge, Md., called on Mr. Obama to exert leadership in his own party to revive the nation's trade agenda.
"Is the president going to stand up and lead on this issue?" asked Speaker John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican. "We cannot pass this bill without his help. If this is one of his own priorities, you would think that he would have the Senate majority leader working with him to pass trade promotion authority in order to expand opportunities for our fellow citizens."
House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, California Republican, said the president keeps reminding lawmakers that he has "a phone and a pen" to take executive action if necessary.
"I think the first phone call actually has to be to Harry Reid to talk about trade," Mr. McCarthy said.
Leading business groups, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Business Roundtable, appealed to Mr. Obama to get involved personally in the push for new trade-negotiating authority.
"He needs to work the phone and spend time on Capitol Hill every week until it's done. It's that important," John Murphy, vice president of international affairs for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, wrote in a blog post.
The White House tried to downplay the rift in the president's party. Mr. Carney said Mr. Reid "has always been clear on his position on this particular issue."
But Mr. Reid had kept those concerns largely to himself prior to this week. And the president's desire to obtain fast-track authority was already on thin ice, despite an aggressive lobbying effort by the White House with lawmakers in recent weeks.
In November, 151 House Democrats sent a letter to Mr. Obama opposing fast-track authority. Rep. Rosa DeLauro, Connecticut Democrat, said they are concerned about what they said was the loss of more than 5 million U.S. manufacturing jobs after the North American Free Trade Agreement was signed with Mexico and Canada almost two decades ago.
The Democrats were joined by unlikely allies — 23 House Republicans, including several lawmakers affiliated with the tea party who oppose the expansion of presidential power under fast track.
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