Obama wants trade pacts OK’d fast; Democrats balk

Helped by fast-track authority, President Clinton, a Democrat, won approval of the North American Free Trade Agreement with the United States, Mexico, and Canada in 1993.
Helped by fast-track authority, President Clinton, a Democrat, won approval of the North American Free Trade Agreement with the United States, Mexico, and Canada in 1993.

WASHINGTON — President Obama wants to put 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.

And Obama has found an ally in a traditional foe, John Boehner, the Republican House speaker.

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 trade deals. But the separate talks with the European Union and 11 Pacific Rim nations are generating strong emotions.

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Many Democrats up for re-election fear drawing primary-election opposition over the trade talks. Concerned about lost jobs, they’re abandoning Obama on this issue.

Late last year, 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 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 in 2002 for President George W. Bush. That 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 visits Asia in April. The Pacific talks are further along than the Atlantic ones but have been complicated by disputes over environmental issues and resistance in some Asian countries to a wholesale lowering of trade barriers.

Also, US standing took a hit when Obama missed the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting in October because of the US government shutdown.

More Republicans support free-trade agreements than do Democrats. Business interests generally favor such pacts, and labor unions tend to oppose them. Lower-priced imported goods and services may be welcomed by consumers, but one consequence can be the loss of US jobs.

Fast-track authority speeds up congressional action on trade deals by barring amendments.

Boehner taunts Obama by saying 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. ‘‘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.’’


A fast-track bill may be ‘‘ready to go’’ in the GOP-controlled House, but in the Democratic-led Senate, majority leader Harry Reid has given it a thumbs-down.

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.’’