- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 1, 2015

President Obama’s increasing use of executive power could backfire in the new Congress as he seeks to persuade lawmakers to grant him special authority to negotiate his long-sought, mammoth free trade agreement with Pacific Rim nations.

Republican lawmakers have been more inclined than Democrats to give the president trade promotion authority, which would boost his chances of completing the Trans-Pacific Partnership, centerpiece of his effort to focus U.S. policy on Asia.

But conservatives increasingly are balking at the idea of granting Mr. Obama any powers given his far-reaching executive actions, which included granting deportation amnesty to millions of illegal immigrants and re-establishing diplomatic relations with Cuba after the midterm elections.

“An increasing number of members see [trade promotion authority] as a way of giving more power to President Obama, and therefore the whole debate will be longer,” said Anthony Kim, a specialist on free trade and economics at the conservative Heritage Foundation. “After the November election, we knew that President Obama had limited political capital to spend. He basically wasted that.”

Conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly has joined forces with Tea Party Nation founder Judson Phillips and former GOP presidential candidate Alan Keyes, trying to persuade Republican lawmakers to oppose giving Mr. Obama the “fast track” authority.

Mrs. Schlafly has said it would be “insane” for Republicans to grant him the power after they complained loudly about the president’s expanding use of executive actions.

Fast-track authority essentially gives the president the power to negotiate agreements as he sees fit, and it assures foreign governments that Congress won’t alter the terms of the deal after the agreement is signed.

The proposed trade deal has stood out as one of the best chances for Mr. Obama to work with the Republican-led Congress. Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, Utah Republican, who is in line to become chairman of the Senate Committee on Finance, has said the fast-track legislation would be a top priority.

The president’s director of the National Economic Council, Jeffrey Zients, said White House officials are still hopeful that Congress will advance trade promotion authority soon after it convenes this month. He said the administration has held nearly 1,500 meetings on Capitol Hill to pave the way for the TPP.

“We are making good progress on TPP,” Mr. Zients told reporters in late December. “A good trade deal is good for American workers and good for the economy. It’s also an important thing as part of the president’s Asia pivot to set the rules of the road on environment, on labor and [on] intellectual property.”

Counterweight to China

The free trade agreement would include 12 nations, covering about 40 percent of the world’s economic output. The negotiators include Japan, the world’s third-largest economy, as well as America’s neighbors and biggest export markets, Canada and Mexico. (South Korea and Taiwan have expressed an interest in joining the pact but have not officially signed the negotiating agreement.) China is not a part of the talks.

Mr. Obama views the agreement as the key to his long-term strategy to reposition the U.S. as a Pacific power and to serve as a counterweight to China’s influence. But for the second year in a row, Mr. Obama is falling short on his pledge to get the deal done by the end of the year.

While the U.S. Chamber of Commerce strongly supports the deal, Democratic lawmakers and their union allies are largely opposed, saying TPP would drain high-paying jobs away from the U.S.

Ben Beachy, research director at Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch, has said the agreement would result in “a pay cut for 90 percent of U.S. workers.”

The White House also has attracted a potential foe in Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Massachusetts Democrat, who said in a letter recently to U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman that the TPP could threaten U.S. financial safeguards designed to “prevent future financial crises.”

“We cannot afford a trade deal that undermines the government’s ability to protect the American economy,” Mrs. Warren said in the letter, which was also signed by Democratic Sens. Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin and Edward J. Markey of Massachusetts.

Ms. Warren also has criticized the secrecy of the trade talks, saying in a speech earlier this year that “Wall Street, pharmaceuticals, telecom, big polluters and outsourcers are all salivating at the chance to rig the deal in the upcoming trade talks. So the question is, why are the trade talks secret?”

Mr. Obama tried to address some of the concerns of his base last month when he spoke to business leaders in his Export Council, saying “the horse is out of the barn” on America losing jobs overseas.

“Much of that shift in search of low-wage labor has already occurred, and yet we don’t have access to those markets that are growing,” Mr. Obama said. “Instead of fighting the last war, what we need to be doing is looking forward.”

The president and his aides say their negotiations in the TPP are aimed at setting high standards for labor rules, environmental regulations and other concerns so the system is fair for all workers.

“If we are able to get Trans-Pacific Partnership done, then we’re actually forcing some countries to boost their labor standards, boost their environmental standards, boost transparency, reduce corruption, increase intellectual property protection,” Mr. Obama said.

But with a presidential election campaign looming in 2016, Mr. Kim of the Heritage Foundation said the negotiating partners in the TPP are increasingly concerned that the administration and Congress are not committed to pushing through a deal.

“Once we get to 2016, there will be very limited energy and time to do anything on TPP,” Mr. Kim said. “The trade equation is getting much more complex and very political. That plays out to our trading partners and other negotiators. They will see this as an indication [of] ‘Are we really into this game? Do we really want to do this?’

“From their perspective, they’ve been told by President Obama and others that once we finalize TPP, we’ll make sure we get TPA done as well. But they haven’t seen that happen. Their patience is running out,” he said.

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