The White House on Thursday put a brave face on a rebuke by the top Senate Democrat on trade policy, which will complicate its attempts to negotiate huge commerce pacts with Asia and Europe.
President Barack Obama’s plans to conclude the deals, a centerpiece of his economic and foreign policy, absorbed a blow when Senator Harry Reid came out against granting the White House trade promotion authority.
Without “fast track” powers, which mean deals agreed by the president will not be amended in Congress, Washington will find it harder to conclude pacts with key trading partners.
Reid’s move, part of delicate mid-term election year politics which are squeezing the pro-trade block in Congress, is a blow to Obama’s hopes of reaching a Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) with 12 nations and a Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) with Europe.
“Leader Reid has always been clear on his position on this issue,” White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters on Air Force One.
“The president’s commitment was made clear again in his State of the Union address.”
Carney said the twin trade pacts were a “very important opportunity to expand trade, to not cede this territory to our competitors.
“The president will continue to press to get it done.”
Reid, who as the leader of Senate Democrats controls which legislation is brought up for a vote, said Wednesday that now was not the time to think about bringing a request for trade promotion authority to Congress.
“I’m against ‘fast track,'” he said.
“I think everyone would be well advised just to not push this right now.”
Trade Promotion Authority would allow Congress to pass or reject trade deals on simple up or down votes, barring lawmakers from changing results of delicate, years-long negotiations between Washington and other nations.
Obama seeks to forge stronger trade ties with Pacific Rim nations as a key component of his strategy of rebalancing US resources to Asia.
His administration has placed a high priority on the TPP at a time when China — which is not included — is building its regional influence.
A free-trade deal with Europe would be the world’s biggest. The EU estimates it would bring annual benefits of 119 billion euros ($164 billion) for the bloc’s 28 member states, and only slightly less for the United States.
Many labor groups, which back Democrats, oppose such deals because they would increase competition and potentially lower labor standards.