Are Republicans ready to support President Obama's trade agenda?

With Republicans poised to take control of the Senate in January, many of President Obama's pet projects are likely to face fierce opposition, with one potential exception – trade.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP
US President Obama (l.) seated with Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong (r.) during a meeting with leaders of the Trans-Pacific Partnership countries, Monday in Beijing, on the sidelines of the APEC summit.

President Obama’s trade agenda – including completion of the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement – appears headed for smoother sailing under a more heavily Republican Congress.

That is, as long as the most anti-Obama Republicans who are feeling their oats after the midterm elections can stifle a desire to deny the president any kind of victory in his last two years in office.

And the smooth sailing could quickly encounter much rougher seas, some trade analysts say, if Mr. Obama takes executive action on immigration that infuriates Congress and sours it on giving the president the authority he needs to reach the ambitious trade deals he’s negotiating.

The new Congress that convenes in January – and which will include a Republican-controlled Senate – will have many more Republicans cut from the pro-business, pro-Chamber-of-Commerce cloth that trade analysts say are anxious to push forward on unfinished trade deals with Asia and the European Union and other global trade initiatives.

But others caution that neither the Obama administration nor pro-trade Republicans should discount the sway that tea party Republicans and anti-free-trade Democrats could still have in at least slowing the trade agenda.

“There has always been this issue [of a strange-bedfellow anti-trade coalition] where the left and the right gang up on the center,” says Bill Reinsch, president of the National Foreign Trade Council (NFTC), a pro-trade lobbying organization.            

One clue as to where Obama’s trade initiatives are headed is expected to come from the lame-duck session of Congress, which could either accelerate a lumbering trade agenda – or keep it idling into next year.

The big question is what (if anything) the lame-duck session does about granting Obama “trade promotion authority” (TPA), the mechanism that allows US officials negotiating trade deals with other countries to say that the agreement reached will face a straight up-or-down vote in Congress but will not be renegotiated between Congress and the president.

Most countries are reluctant to stick their neck out and move ahead with the United States on tough trade compromises unless the president has TPA, also known as fast-track authority, under his belt.

Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky (R), chosen by fellow Senate Republicans to become majority leader in the new Senate in January, said this week that trade is an example of an issue that Republicans can work with Obama on, and some pro-trade Republicans are suggesting that time will be found to pass TPA in the lame-duck session.

But those left and right opponents that Mr. Reinsch mentions are already gearing up to head off any such move.

A trade-union-backed campaign called the “Stop Fast Track Week of Action” has blanketed the Washington Metro station nearest the Capitol with posters of American workers lamenting that fast track equates to jobs moving overseas and wage stagnation. Also this week, tea party enthusiasts held a press conference in Washington to crank up opposition to TPA, calling it a derogation of congressional authority, a gift to a power-grabbing president, and a step toward trade deals that erode American sovereignty.

Most bets are on fast-track authority getting pushed into the new Congress, which probably augurs well for passage, trade analysts say, since the clout of the two anti-TPA wings is expected to diminish.

But going into next year raises other issues, such as the sequencing of TPA approval with finishing up negotiations on the Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP.

The NFTC’s Reinsch says next year’s congressional calendar – including reorganizing committees in a new Congress – is likely to mean that TPA would not be taken up until late spring. But that could have the effect of putting TPP negotiations on hold, especially between the US and Japan, which remains the key to finalizing a deal.

The US is pushing for a big market-access agreement from Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, especially on agricultural trade. But Japanese officials say that, despite their optimism that a deal can be reached, Mr. Abe is unlikely to move on a deal until Obama has secured fast-track authority.

Farther off on the horizon but still on the White House trade agenda is a far-reaching trade and investment accord with the European Union called the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, or TTIP. Fast-track authority that covered the rest of Obama’s presidency could potentially act as a catalyst to getting those negotiations moving forward again.

The tenor of relations between the two ends of Pennsylvania Avenue will go a long way in determining how far – and how fast – Obama get the trade green lights he wants from Congress.

Some pro-trade forces on the Hill say that the trade initiatives Obama announced this week with China and India during his week-long Asia trip could actually help move the president’s trade agenda faster, since those agreements suggest to them a president who is serious about trade and market access for US companies.

On the other hand, many Republicans say that talk out of the White House suggesting that Obama will soon take far-reaching executive action on immigration could sour any bipartisan mood and derail the trade train.

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