Senior Republicans and Democrats in Congress have agreed the outlines of a bill to give President Barack Obama special powers to conclude sweeping free trade deals with two giant blocks of nations in Europe and in the Latin American-Pacific region.
The proposed new trade pacts would together dwarf the North American Free Trade Pact (Nafta), of 1994 and are a key, if highly controversial, economic goal for Mr Obama as he enters his twilight months in the White House. He has long been seeking a “fast-track authority” under which Congress would be able to approve or reject those pacts with up or down votes but not amend them.
While a big boost for the White House, the understanding struck by the senior Republicans and Democrats on the Senate Finance Committee, Senators Orrin Hatch, of Utah, and Ron Wyden, of Oregon, also sets up what is likely to be a bloody fight on Capitol Hill. Mr Obama’s enthusiasm for free trade enrages large swathes of his own party that see it benefiting big corporations more than workers
It will now be up to Mr Obama to keep enough Democrats on side to ensure that the fast-track bill is passed. The union movement has meanwhile vowed to pull out all the stops, including a six-figure advertising campaign, to persuade Congress to oppose granting him the authority.
Mr Obama’s ambitious free-trade agenda is focused on sealing both pacts before leaving office – the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership with the European Union, TTIP, and the Trans-Pacific Partnership that would span 12 nations in this hemisphere including Japan, Malaysia and Australia.
The battle over the deals is certain to spill over into the 2016 presidential race. Prominent Democrats are pressing Hillary Clinton, who launched her campaign last week, to make her position clear. Supporting Mr Obama’s free-trade agenda would conflict with her efforts to shift left.
Senator Wyden extracted some concessions before agreeing to support fast-track authority. It would be extended only if the White House promises to make human rights part of the Pacific region pact. It would also be obliged to include mechanisms to assist workers affected by any shift of jobs overseas.
That won’t appease union leaders, however. “We can’t afford to pass fast track, which would lead to more lost jobs and lower wages,” said Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO. “We want Congress to keep its leverage over trade negotiations, not rubber-stamp a deal that delivers profits for global corporations, but not… jobs for working people.”