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."
The top House Democrat, Nancy Pelosi, also opposes fast track
President Bill Clinton, a Democrat, used the powers to speed congressional approval of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) with the United States, Mexico and Canada in 1993. The landmark pact had been negotiated under his predecessor, President George H.W. Bush.
George W. Bush used the same authority to push through Congress the Central American Free Trade Agreement in 2005.
Even without fast track, Obama was able to win congressional passage of free-trade agreements with Colombia, Panama and South Korea the old-fashioned way in 2011.
But the stakes are higher now. And, little by little, the politics of approaching midterm elections are intruding.
"Neither political party at this point has any appetite for taking on an issue that would divide that party's caucus in Congress," said William Galston, Clinton's domestic-policy adviser when NAFTA was passed. "That being said, I suspect that very little is going to happen between now and November" on the trade front,
"Bill Clinton had to go against the majority of his own party, especially in the House," added Galston, now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution think tank.
U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman says that, regardless of the political season, the administration will continue to push for fast-track authority. "You can't negotiate (trade deals) with our partners and you can't implement (them) here in the United States if you don't have TPA," Froman said.
But Alan Tonelson, an economist with the United States Business and Industry Council, argues that "American workers on the whole have been leading victims" of such free-trade agreements, beginning with NAFTA.
"Rather than rushing to conclude and endorse new trade initiatives, Congress and the administration should first figure out how to ensure that they serve as engines of domestic growth and job creation, rather than of offshoring and lower living standards," he said.