Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's warning to policymakers on
Wednesday "just to not push this right now" reflects concern about
the domestic political agenda ahead of November's congressional
elections, when free trade could be a damaging issue for many
The unusually blunt public opposition came less than 24 hours after
Obama noted the need for fast-track power in his State of the Union
address, albeit less forcefully than business lobbyists and
pro-trade Republicans would have liked.
The White House called Reid's office shortly after his comments to
voice displeasure, a top Democratic party aide said.
"They were really upset," the aide said. But the aide said the White
House did not try to get Reid to shift his position.
A bill before the House and Senate would grant the White House power
to submit free trade deals to Congress for an up-or-down vote
without amendments, something that would give trading partners peace
of mind but that raises hackles among some lawmakers.
Add to that the genuine mistrust among some Democrats about the
impact of trade deals on local jobs and industry and environmental
standards, and it's a volatile mix.
With two major free trade deals hanging in the balance, the U.S.
administration now faces even more pressure to win over skeptics on
both sides of politics to pass trade promotion authority (TPA) as
the electoral clock ticks down.
"Reid's put a strait-jacket on TPA for now," said Welles Orr, trade
adviser for law firm Miller Chevalier and former congressional
relations expert at the U.S. Trade Representative.
Aides insist that Reid, who controls what comes up on the Senate
floor, has not decided to kill the bill but is not ready to embrace
it either and has let the White House know he will not be an easy
That leaves the White House with a tough decision on how much
political capital to expend lining up support on a politically
contentious measure ahead of the elections.
U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman and his staff are lobbying
lawmakers about the benefits of TPA and proposed trade pacts with
Pacific Rim countries and the European Union, which would cover
nearly two-thirds of global trade.
But he clearly has further to go.
"I'm with Harry on this," said Democratic Senator Sheldon Whitehouse
of Rhode Island.
"There is all sorts of mischief that gets snuck into these trade
agreements. We have seen real damage to our manufacturing sector as
a result of them," Whitehouse said. "Allowing fast-track lets them
get through Congress without proper scrutiny."
Reid's stance also struck a chord among some Republicans, who are
generally more aligned with free trade than Democrats.
"I seldom agree with Harry, but this may be one time," said
Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina. "I've got
concerns about it."
For trading partners, especially in Asia where negotiators had hoped
to get agreement on the Trans-Pacific Partnership by the time Obama
makes a trip to the region in April, the political uncertainty
complicates an already-tight timeline.
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Tacticians now have the option of pushing ahead with the TPA bill in
the House, although it is currently lacking a Democrat co-sponsor;
waiting for amendments to toughen up the negotiating objectives and
make it more palatable to critics, or waiting for the administration
to make greater effort to lobbying skeptics.
"They (the White House) have an opportunity to make its case. They
should do that," another Senate Democratic leadership aide said,
noting that fast track should not be considered dead in the Senate.
Despite differences on trade — the second aide said Reid "hasn't
seen a trade deal that he has liked in a long time, if ever" — the
Nevada senator has been perhaps the White House's most important
ally in Congress.
In the past year alone, he has changed Senate rules to win
confirmation of stalled Obama nominees and taken a lead in trying to
ease Democratic outrage over the White House's botched rollout of
its key healthcare law.
Part of the push-back may be a tactic to gain distance from a
president whose popularity suffered in the wake of Obamacare,
according to CNN/ORC and Gallup polls.
Matthew Green, associate professor of politics at the Catholic
University of America, said Reid would not want to make his members
take a difficult vote on a bill that subsequently would die in the
House, risking their support for nothing.
"The control of the Senate is very much up for grabs. So I'm sure
Reid is thinking, how might trade legislation help or hurt his most
vulnerable members who are running for re-election?" he said.
Even if the bill does not pass in its current form, several leading
Democrats, including the likely next chair of the Senate Finance
Committee, Ron Wyden, have suggested they may back tweaks that could
boost its chances of success — something Reid might have in mind as
"He's strengthening the hand of his colleagues who want a more
protectionist version of the bill," said Daniel Ikenson, director of
the Herbert A. Stiefel Center for Trade Policy Studies at the Cato
"I'd expect a competing bill to surface soon and then, hopefully,
eventually, a compromise," he said.
(Reporting by Krista Hughes and Thomas Ferraro;
by Roberta Rampton, Mark Felsenthal, David Lawder and Steve Holland;
editing by Ken Wills)
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