WASHINGTON (AP) — Debates on lowering trade barriers can turn Congress upside down for Democratic presidents promoting such legislation. Business-minded Republicans suddenly turn into allies and Democrats aligned with organized labor can become outspoken foes.
It's a reversal of the usual order of things, where a Democratic president can generally count on plenty of support from fellow Democrats in Congress along with varying levels of resistance from Republicans.
Now it is President Barack Obama's turn to experience such a role reversal. Already, he is encountering pockets of Democratic resistance, especially from those representing manufacturing states, to his efforts to win congressional approval for renewal of "fast track" negotiating authority.
Such expedited powers help speed the process for major trade agreements by restricting Congress to up-and-down votes on what's already been negotiated — with no amendments allowed.
Two such free-trade deals are in the works. One is a Pacific Rim trade pact — the Trans-Pacific Partnership — between the United States and 11 Asian and Latin American nations. A final round of negotiations begins next month and may be wrapped up by year's end.
"We are now in the endgame," said Acting Deputy U.S. Trade Representative Wendy Cutler.
The other negotiation, not as far along, is a trans-Atlantic trade alliance, mainly between the United States and European Union countries. So far it hasn't generated as much controversy as the nearly done trans-Pacific deal — largely because Europe is a generally high-cost, generally high-wage manufacturing area.
Obtaining fast-track authority from a deeply divided Congress will be a hard sell for Obama, one likely to get even harder as November's midterm congressional elections draw nearer. Democrats now control the Senate, Republicans the House.
And while Obama will likely mention his high-profile trade initiatives in Tuesday's State of the Union address, dwelling on them to any extent could awkwardly bring him more applause from the Republican side of the aisle than from the Democratic side.
Getting a renewal of fast-tack negotiating authority — also called trade promotion authority — "is a priority, not in theory but in fact, for the administration because it is a key part of our overall economic strategy and our foreign policy, particularly in Asia, and because it's time for Congress to update and to assert its own role in trade negotiations," said White House spokesman Jay Carney.
Democratic President Bill Clinton had the tables turned on him two decades ago and found he had to mostly twist Democratic arms to muscle through Congress the North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA — a 1993 free-trade pact among the U.S., Canada and Mexico that Republicans heavily supported. Democratic critics still argue that agreement continues to cost U.S. jobs. Clinton used "fast track" authority in 1993 for winning its passage.
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