President Barack Obama is running into stiff opposition from Democrats in the US Congress to his ambitions to craft huge trade deals spanning the Atlantic and Pacific.
With talks on both deals well under way, Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid joined scores of other lawmakers last week to declare opposition to giving Obama “fast track” authority to negotiate the thorny deals without Congress picking over specific issues.
The power — which Congress has granted the White House twice since 1974, the latest expiring in 2007 — would allow the White House to negotiate all the details of a trade treaty and then present it to Congress for ratification as a whole.
Having it in place now would allow US negotiators to more easily reach agreements with counterparts on the myriad details of the complex Trans-Pacific Partnership and Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership pacts.
Both are designed to achieve broad free-trade gains in the absence of a full new global deal under the World Trade Organization.
The TPP assembles 12 countries bordering the Pacific — with global export power China notably left out — while the TTIP brings together the United States and the European Union, where negotiators have similar authority to finalize a deal before presenting it to members for an up-or-down vote.
Obama hopes both will help boost US exports and create jobs. But Congress’s resistance to giving Obama fast-track negotiating powers — officially called trade promotion authority — could hobble efforts to finalize the deals.
Last week Reid, normally an essential ally of Obama, bluntly declared his opposition.
“I’m against ‘fast track,” he said. “I think everyone would be well advised just to not push this right now.”
That followed an open letter signed by some 150 Democrats in November opposing fast-track powers for the TPP, insisting that Congress have a deeper role in the talks.
“In light of the broad scope of today’s trade agreements, it is even more vital that Congress have a fulsome role in shaping these pacts? terms,” the letter said.
It cited specific interests of the legislators and their constituents likely to be touched on by the deals: labor, copyright, environment, food standards, professional licensing, and overall industrial regulation, among others.
“The United States cannot afford another trade agreement that replicates the mistakes of the past.”
For Democrats, a fear is that November’s Congressional elections will see the proposed new pacts linked to the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which promised great benefits for US farmers and workers but which now is criticized for exporting jobs to Mexico.
Some experts say that refusing Obama the special powers could ultimately sink the two deals.
“It’s not going to be possible to conclude either of those trade agreements without having fast track. It’s a very serious problem,” said David Gantz, a professor of trade law at the University of Arizona.
According to the powerful US Chamber of Commerce, which supports both pacts, the other partners in the talks cannot be certain that the deal they negotiate will not be unraveled by Congress, with politicians objecting to specific provisions that affect their voters.
“Our trading partners want to have some confidence and certainty that … it’s not going to be torn apart in Congress,” the chamber’s international policy director Christopher Wenk.
“We’re putting all of our muscle behind it right now.”
For now, the partners in both sets of negotiations have stayed quiet about the looming issue of Obama’s power to complete the deals.
Speaking anonymously, a European diplomat in Washington said it is still seen as a strictly domestic US issue.
The White House said it is still working on the issue, even as it faces more resistance from fellow Democrats than opposition Republicans, who mostly back agreements to make trade more free.
?We believe that Congress and the American people will support the high-standard agreements that we are negotiating because they deliver meaningful market access, create jobs, and level the playing field for our workers,” the office of the US Trade Representative, in charge of the negotiations, told AFP.
“We continue to work the clock to make good on the economic promise of these agreements as swiftly as possible.”