Obama heads to Congress for last-minute trade push

WASHINGTON (AFP) - President Barack Obama went to Congress on Friday for a frantic round of lobbying ahead of a crucial vote on his sweeping trans-Pacific trade agenda.

The House of Representatives is expected to vote mid-day Friday (June 12) on final passage of the so-called Trade Promotion Authority (TPA), and while Republican leaders are confident they have the momentum to get it across the finish line, the vote remains a toss-up.  

TPA, which has already passed the Senate, would allow Mr Obama to finalise negotiations with 11 other Pacific Rim countries on what would be the largest trade agreement ever, a massive pact with Japan, Australia, Chile, Vietnam and others that would affect an estimated 40 per cent of global commerce.  

With the vote on a razor’s edge, and Mr Obama’s entire trade agenda seemingly imperilled, the president dashed to Capitol Hill for a last-minute arm-twisting session with Democrats, most of whom are in open revolt against granting the president powers to complete a historic trans-Pacific trade accord.  

He needs a simple majority in the House, where the bulk of votes will come from rival Republicans, although roughly 20 Democrats will need to sign on if TPA is to pass.  

In another foray into hardball politics, Mr Obama made an unannounced stop Thursday night at the annual congressional baseball game in Washington to seek support for a measure that labour leaders say will cost American jobs.  

As Mr Obama mingled with Democrats and Republicans, the crowd behind the Republican dugout began chanting “TPA! TPA!”

Labour leaders fear job losses

Some Democrats fear that supporting measures unpopular with the labor movement or other core constituencies could cost them their seat in 2016.  

In a blunt response Thursday, White House spokesman Josh Earnest said “members of Congress should be more concerned about the jobs of Americans than their own jobs.”

Also on Thursday, the House easily passed a trade preferences bill aimed at helping Africa’s developing economies, and which included a new funding mechanism for a program known as Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA), which provides aid to US workers displaced by globalisation.  

The new offset was seen as a bipartisan compromise between House Speaker John Boehner, who supports the trade package, and top House Democrat Nancy Pelosi, a staunch Obama ally who has yet to announce her trade position.  

Hours later, TPA cleared a House procedural hurdle by the narrowest of margins, setting up Friday’s votes.  

Lawmakers will consider three separate measures; the first, TAA, is strongly backed by Democrats but viewed skeptically by Republicans.  

Leaders arranged it so that TAA must pass in order for a vote to proceed on TPA.  

A third vote occurs on a customs and enforcement measure, a catch-all bill into which Republicans have added several of their priorities, including a provision barring trade deals from requiring Washington to address climate change, and another that forbids such pacts from loosening immigration laws.  

House Ways and Means Committee chairman Paul Ryan sought to assuage the concerns expressed by many lawmakers about the secrecy shrouding the trade negotiations.  

Writing in the Washington Examiner, Mr Ryan stressed that TPA will force the administration to follow “specific requirements” on the trade accord, known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).  

“Every member of Congress will get to read the current draft of the TPP agreement. Every member will also get regular briefings on the latest state of play and even get to attend negotiating rounds in person,” Mr Ryan said.