Trade deals: why Obama is stymied by members of his own party

As President Obama meets with leaders from Mexico and Canada, it's fellow Democrats at home who are giving him grief on expanded international trade. The looming fall midterms aren't helping. 

AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Sean Kilpatrick
Canada's Prime Minister Stephen Harper, left, walks with President Barack Obama, right, and Mexico's President Enrique Pena Nieto in Toluca, Mexico, Wednesday. U.S. congressional Democrats have been generally unsupportive of international trade deals.

Usually, the rap on Washington is that Democrats and Republicans are so polarized, they can’t agree on much.

But as President Obama met Wednesday with the leaders of Mexico and Canada to talk trade, it was Mr. Obama’s top Democratic allies in Congress who were making life difficult. Republican leaders, normally his adversaries, have been his allies, goading him to make the pro-trade argument more forcefully.

Both Senate majority leader Harry Reid (D) of Nevada and House minority leader Nancy Pelosi (D) of California oppose giving the president “trade-promotion authority” – also known as “fast track” – to allow international trade deals to pass Congress with no amendments and on a simple majority vote.  

Labor leaders, too, oppose fast track, saying big international trade deals threaten American jobs. Conservationists worry such deals may not contain adequate environmental protections. Both movements are crucial to Democrats’ chances in the November midterms. And it is those midterms that make congressional Democrats especially wary of the emerging trade deals with Europe and Asia.

Americans have conflicting views of international trade generally, but a negative view of NAFTA – the North American Free Trade Agreement, which the United States entered into 20 years ago with Mexico and Canada.

As a presidential candidate, Obama promised to fix NAFTA. Now as president, he is hoping to amend NAFTA as part of the larger Trans-Pacific Partnership, which links countries in Asia, North America, and South America. To do that, he says, he needs fast track.

“We need to work together on tools like bipartisan trade promotion authority to protect our workers, protect our environment, and open new markets to new goods stamped 'Made in the USA,' ” Obama said last month in his State of the Union address. “China and Europe aren’t standing on the sidelines. Neither should we.”

The next day, Senator Reid – presiding over a precarious Democratic majority in the upper chamber – threw cold water on fast track. “Everyone would be well advised just to not push this right now,” he said.

At a House Democratic retreat last Friday, Obama didn’t bring up trade, which sparked taunting from Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky.

“You have to wonder how serious he is about these jobs since he didn’t even mention it at all when he spoke to House Democrats today,” Senator McConnell said in a statement. “The jobs they seem to care most about are Democrats’ in Congress – not families across the country eager to join the ranks of the employed.”

Complicating matters are Republican tea party members who oppose fast track – creating a realignment of sorts, at least on trade, with the populist left and populist right joining forces.

Late last year, 151 House Democrats – about three-quarters of the caucus – sent Obama a letter opposing fast track, saying it usurps Congress’s authority on trade matters. About two dozen House Republicans also sent the president a letter opposing fast track.  

Any eventual agreement on fast track will have to be bipartisan, probably with mostly Republican votes, and it may have to wait until the lame-duck period after the midterms -- or beyond -- to get a vote. Administration officials express confidence that fast track will pass, though they don’t offer a timeline.

Some say Obama could be doing more to talk up the benefits of trade.

“The president probably needs to make a better case to show how trade benefits the average American,” says Stephen Kelly, a visiting public policy professor at Duke University in Durham, N.C.

One of the problems with NAFTA is that when a factory employing 300 people closes down and moves to Mexico, “that’s news,” Professor Kelly says. But, he adds, in North Carolina’s region known as the Research Triangle, “if each [company] hires five more people, because they have new contracts to sell goods to Canada or Mexico, that’s not news.” 

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