J. Scott Applewhite, File, Associated Press
WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama wants to put major emerging trade deals with Europe and Asia on a "fast track" to congressional passage. But with midterm elections looming, many fellow Democrats are working to sidetrack them instead.
At the same time, Obama has found an ally in a traditional foe, Republican House Speaker John Boehner.
If ratified, the proposals — the Trans-Atlantic and Trans-Pacific Trade and Investment Partnerships — would create the largest free-trade zone in the world, covering roughly half of all global trade.
In his State of the Union address, Obama asked Congress to give him "trade promotion authority," usually known as fast track, to negotiate the twin trade deals. But the separate negotiations with the European Union and 11 Pacific Rim nations are generating strong emotions at home and abroad.
Many Democrats up for re-election in November are fearful of drawing primary-election opposition over the trade talks. Concerned about lost jobs that are important to labor unions, they're abandoning Obama on this issue.
Late last year in fact, 151 House Democrats, roughly three quarters of the chamber's Democratic membership, signed a letter to Obama signaling their opposition to granting him fast-track trade authority.
Obama said his goal in requesting such authority was "to protect our workers, protect our environment and open new markets to new goods stamped 'Made in the USA.'" But the president, never known as an enthusiastic free-trader in the past, has yet to make an all-out push for the authority, which was last approved by Congress in 2002 for President George W. Bush but expired in 2007.
Meanwhile, some European allies are pushing back, still peeved over disclosures of National Security Agency surveillance of them.
Obama had hoped an agreement could be reached on the trans-Pacific talks before he visited Japan and other Asian nations in April. The Pacific talks are further along than the Atlantic ones.
But the trans-Pacific talks have been complicated by disputes over environmental issues and resistance in some Asian countries to a wholesale lowering of trade barriers. Also, U.S. standing in the region took a hit when Obama missed the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting last October because of the American government shutdown.
At home, clearly more Republicans support free-trade agreements than do Democrats. Business interests generally favor such pacts, while labor unions tend to oppose them. Lower-priced imported goods and services may be welcomed by U.S. consumers, but one consequence can be the loss of U.S. manufacturing and service jobs.
Fast-track authority speeds up congressional action on trade deals by barring amendments.
Boehner, R-Ohio, taunts Obama by asserting that "Trade Promotion Authority is ready to go. So why isn't it done?"
"It isn't done because the president hasn't lifted a finger to get Democrats in Congress to support it," Boehner said, answering his own question. "And with jobs on the line, the president needs to pick up his phone and call his own party, so that we can get this done."
It isn't yet clear whether Boehner's retreat from years of political brinkmanship in pushing a debt limit increase through the House last week will help to forge a bipartisan consensus on the trade deals.
A fast-track bill may be "ready to go" in the GOP-controlled House but certainly isn't in the Democratic-led Senate, where Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has given it a thumbs-down. "I'm against fast track," Reid says flatly. "Everyone would be well advised just to not push this right now."
White House press secretary Jay Carney says the president's team has been aware of Reid's opposition for some time but "will continue to work to enact bipartisan trade-promotion authority."