Congress is bracing for a showdown over granting the White House "fast-track" authority to negotiate a sweeping multinational trade deal — a fight that could be one of the toughest battles of President Barack Obama’s remaining time in office.
The brouhaha will center on an ambitious trade accord between the United States and 11 South American and Pacific Rim nations known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership. But the wrangling is also about whether to grant Obama and future presidents the right to request an up-or-down vote in Congress on trade agreements. Supporters say such authority gives the president better negotiating power; opponents worry that massive deals deserve vetting by Congress.
Last week, after tense negotiation, leaders of tax committees in both congressional chambers agreed to legislation that gives Congress the right to vote on the trade deal — but prevents legislators from including amendments that could stymie its progress.
Here’s what you need to know about the gathering storm.
‘NAFTA on steroids’
Should all the countries involved come to an agreement, the resulting trade deal would be the largest since the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement, which spelled out rules for trade among the U.S., Canada and Mexico. The goal: a freer flow of everything from Florida oranges to Japanese video games. Opponents derogatorily refer to the Trans-Pacific Partnership as “NAFTA on steroids,” since nearly 40 percent of the global economy would be represented.
Who supports it?
The Obama administration, many Republicans, large corporations, the tech and agricultural industries and even Hollywood — eager to strengthen copyright protections — all back efforts to increase America’s ability to export to countries included in the pact. Supporters argue that the deal is needed to help remove barriers to trade and boost the American economy.
Who opposes it?
Many congressional Democrats, environmental groups, liberal-learning organizations and labor unions are vocal in their displeasure. They say the proposed deal was cobbled together in secret and sticks it to American workers by helping companies outsource jobs and keep wages low. The AFL-CIO is mounting a six-figure advertising campaign to pressure lawmakers to oppose giving the president fast-track power.
Who are the players?
Getting the trade deal done (or not) will definitely be a major part of Obama’s economic legacy.
Keep an eye, too, on how former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who recently announced her presidential candidacy, lines up on this one. This is a tricky issue for her—after all, it was President Bill Clinton who helped get NAFTA through Congress back in 1994.
So far, she has been cautious in how she discusses the trade measure.
"Hillary Clinton believes that any new trade measure has to pass two tests: First, it should put us in a position to protect American workers, raise wages and create more good jobs at home. Second, it must also strengthen our national security. We should be willing to walk away from any outcome that falls short of these tests," Nick Merrill, a Clinton spokesperson, said in a statement on Friday.
Other domestic players will include Sen. Chuck Schumer, the New York Democrat who will likely become Senate Minority Leader when Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada retires next year. Schumer has expressed disillusionment with such trade deals.
The congressional tax committees plan on holding votes this week. After that, the measure could come up for a floor vote. Fireworks will likely ensue.