By Amie Parnes – 01/21/14 06:00 AM EST
The White House is making a major push to convince Congress to give the president trade promotion authority, which would make it easier for President Obama to negotiate pacts with other countries.
A flurry of meetings has taken place in recent days since legislation was introduced to give the president the authority, with U.S. Trade Representative Mike Froman meeting with approximately 70 lawmakers on both sides of the aisle in the House and Senate.
White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough has also been placing calls and meeting with key Democratic lawmakers in recent days to discuss trade and other issues.
Republicans have noticed a change in the administration’s interest in the issue, which is expected to be a part of Obama’s State of the Union address in one week.
While there was “a lack of engagement,” as one senior Republican aide put it, there is now a new energy from the White House since the bill dropped.
The effort to get Congress to grant Obama trade promotion authority comes as the White House seeks to complete trade deals with the European Union and a group of Asian and Latin American countries as part of the Trans-Pacific Partnership or TPP.
The authority would put time limits on congressional consideration of those deals, and prevent the deals from being amended by Congress. That would give the administration more leverage with trading partners in its negotiations.
The trade push dovetails with the administration’s efforts to raise the issue of income inequality ahead of the 2014 midterm elections. The White House is pressing Republicans to raise the minimum wage and to extend federal unemployment benefits.
The difference is that on the minimum wage hike and unemployment issue, Obama has willing partners in congressional Democrats and unions, who are more skeptical of free trade. Republicans are more the willing partner on backing trade promotion authority.
Legislation introduced last week to give Obama trade promotion authority was sponsored by Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp (R-Mich.) and Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.), as well as Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), the ranking member on Finance.
No House Democrats are co-sponsoring the bill, however, and Rep. Sander Levin (D-Mich.), the Ways and Means ranking member, and Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.), the panel’s former chairman, have both criticized it. They said the legislation doesn’t give enough leverage and power to Congress during trade negotiations.
Getting TPA passed would be a major victory for the administration and one that would please business groups, but the White House will first have to convince Democrats to go along with it.
One senior administration official said the White House has been in dialogue with lawmakers on both sides of the aisle “with a real focus on Democrats” to explain TPA and take into account their concerns.
“Any trade matter presents challenges,” the senior administration official said, adding that the White House officials are “devoted” to working with members on the issue.
The Democratic opposition makes it highly unlikely that the trade promotion authority bill, in its current form at least, will go anywhere.
One big problem is that it was negotiated by Baucus, who is about to leave the Senate to become ambassador to China.
Baucus will be replaced by Sen. Ron Wyden (Ore.), who is said to disagree with the approach taken by his predecessor. Democratic aides predict that the legislation, which Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) called “controversial” last week, will have to be completely redone to gain traction among lawmakers in their party.
Some Democrats may see a disconnect between the White House’s push for trade, and it’s separate push on income inequality, which has been embraced by the party.
But that doesn’t mean the White House won’t ramp up their focus on trade in the coming weeks and months.
Senior congressional aides expect trade to be a part of Obama’s upcoming State of the Union address since the White House has made clear that the trade bill is a priority and that the TPP trade pact is a key part of the administration’s overall jobs agenda, in terms of increasing exports and opening markets.
“This is a priority of the president’s,” White House press secretary Jay Carney told reporters last week. “It’s part of a broad approach to expanding exports and, you know, creating more opportunities for our businesses to grow. And we’re going to continue to push for it.”
In the same vein, House Republicans will continue to increase pressure on the administration to get Democrats on board.
“The White House carries the weight on this,” one senior House aide said.
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