Obama's Trade Agenda Faces Key Vote in Congress

TPP trade vote looms
President Barack Obama's goal of strengthening U.S. economic ties with Asia will hang in the balance in Congress. Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama's goal of strengthening U.S. economic ties with Asia will hang in the balance in Congress on Friday when divided lawmakers vote on legislation central to his hallmark Pacific Rim trade deal.

The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), Obama's 12-nation pact, encompasses 40 percent of the global economy and is close to completion. It would be greatly advanced if Congress gives him "fast track" authority for it.

That question is expected to culminate in a very close vote in the House of Representatives, which has been wrestling with fast-track for weeks. The Senate has already backed it.

Fast-track authority would let lawmakers set negotiating objectives for trade deals, such as the TPP, but restrict them to only a yes-or-no vote on the finished agreement.

With a legacy-defining achievement on the line for Obama, House approval of fast-track would boost his hopes for a swift completion of the TPP, which would harmonize trading standards and lower trade barriers among the signatory countries.

Rejection by the House of fast-track, or of a companion measure meant to aid workers hurt by trade, would be a massive blow to Obama. He has lobbied hard to win over skeptical Democrats and forged an unusual alliance with the Republicans who control Congress.

"We're expecting two close votes, probably two nailbiters," said Gabe Horwitz, economics director at the centrist Democratic think tank Third Way, who expects both measures to pass.

House Speaker John Boehner, a Republican, declined to guarantee victory but said he had worked to address concerns raised by both sides.

"I'm encouraged. We've had good discussions this week on a bipartisan basis," he told reporters.

Although some Republicans are likely to oppose fast-track, the party has 246 House seats, meaning it could lose 28 votes and still cross the 218-vote threshold needed for passage.

A Democratic aide said 26 Democrats were ready to vote "yes," with another four leaning that way. Vote counters are betting that level of Democratic support will be enough to compensate for any weakness on the Republican side.

The trade debate has pitted business groups and iconic U.S. brands such as Nike Inc <nke.n> against environmental and consumer groups and unions. In an unusual move and a sign of the severity of the opposition, the unions are also lobbying against the worker aid program, an issue dear to many Democrats.

Democrat Jan Schakowsky, who hails from Obama's hometown of Chicago and was an early supporter of his 2008 run for the White House, said some Democrats were willing to see the worker aid program die if it means stopping fast-track and the TPP.

"There are plenty of those who feel that's not such a bad price to pay for saving American jobs," said Schakowsky, a trade skeptic.

Obama's Trade Agenda Faces Key Vote in Congress | U.S.