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Obama’s State of the Union Speech Dilemma

January 27, 2014

Obama’s State of the Union Speech Dilemma: Calling on Congress to “Fast Track” the Trans-Pacific Partnership Will Further Alienate Congressional Democrats and Fuel Ire among Conservative Republicans

During his annual “State of the Union” address before a joint session of Congress on January 28 at 9:00 PM Washington time, President Obama is expected to highlight his major trade initiatives. This includes the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) deal, a massive pact between the U.S. and 11 Asian and Latin American nations. The business lobby is pushing hard for Obama to use the speech to call on Congress to pass Fast Track trade authority for the TPP in the face of growing opposition in Congress and the U.S. public.

The priority Obama does or does not give to Fast Track in the speech will be revealing. Fast Track proponents and opponents alike believe that Obama must make a significant personal investment in pushing Congress to approve the controversial procedure. The speech is one of Obama’s key opportunities to signal to Congress and the public that TPP and Fast Track to pass it are personal priorities.

Congressional opposition to TPP is growing and for several decades Democratic and Republican presidents have been hard pressed to get Congress to delegate Fast Track authority. In the 20 years since passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), Fast Track has only been in effect for five years (2002-2007).

When legislation to establish Fast Track, also referred to as Trade Promotion Authority (TPA), was recently introduced in Congress, not even one Democrat in the House of Representatives was willing to sponsor the bill. Fast Track faces an extreme uphill battle in the House, which must act on the measure first under U.S. constitutional rules.

A stunning array of U.S. labor unions, environmental organizations, faith groups, consumer organizations, on-line advocacy groups and more immediately announced their vigorous opposition to the bill.

Members of Congress, many of whom supported past free trade agreements, including the top Democrat on the relevant House Committee Sander Levin, have blasted the Fast Track legislation as being inappropriate for expansive pacts like TPP. Last month, 151 House Democrats signed a letter saying they oppose granting Fast Track authority to President Obama for approval of TPP, arguing lawmakers have been cut out of negotiations. "We want transparency. We want to see what's going on there," House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) told reporters. "We have a problem with that."

“The president has spent months establishing his legacy issue, which is battling growing American income inequality and creating new middle class jobs. The congressional Democrats are with him on that, but they know that TPP would increase income inequality and the U.S. public hates these NAFTA style agreements,” said Lori Wallach, Director of Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch. “So if Obama highlights Fast Track and TPP in his speech, it will push the congressional Democrats to make more public the distinction between them and Obama on these issues.”

The president’s speech coincides with the 20th anniversary month of the implementation of the North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which public opinion polling shows that a majority of Democrat, Republican, and Independent U.S. voters reject. NAFTA’s contribution to U.S. income inequality makes “fast tracking” a massive, TPP NAFTA expansion a hard sell among Democrats in Congress. A group of Senate Democrats added their voice to the growing chorus in a letter to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid this week. Reid, who controls the Senate calendar for consideration of any legislation, said he has not yet made a commitment to bring the Fast Track bill to the Senate floor, and indicated that his willingness to do so will depend on the support within the Democratic caucus.

Meanwhile, conservative members of the Republican Party, who are skeptical of granting any additional authority to President Obama, also continue to speak out loudly against Fast Track. This reverberation continues after 27 Republicans signed letters announcing their opposition to Fast Track late last year and high-profile Tea Party Republican Senator Rand Paul came out against the procedure earlier this year.

Given this massive opposition in Congress across the political spectrum, Obama would be forced to make this politically unpopular policy a personal top priority in the first half of 2014 before lawmakers’ attention turns to midterm elections (where the entire House of Representatives and one-third of the Senate will stand for reelection). Thus far, the White House has not been vocal or active in promoting Fast Track. The U.S. Trade Representative even declined an invitation last week to testify at a Senate Finance Committee hearing considering the Fast Track bill, much to the consternation of Senate supporters of the bill.

“If the White House does not do a full court press in support of Fast Track, it is clear that Fast Track will remain dead in the water in Congress,” said Wallach. “But if the President does personally push for Fast Track, he may well still lose on that but in addition he will alienate the vast majority of congressional Democrats at a time when he needs them to support other key domestic priorities, and further embolden conservative Republicans against him. Either way, very few Members of Congress are going to be eager to have to take a vote on this unpopular policy in an election year.”

ENDS

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