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June 27, 2017

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Obama, Democrats struggle to agree over trade bloc bills

WASHINGTON--The White House says it will continue to press Congress for authority to speed approval of trade deals even as election-year politics makes the task harder.

The Obama administration is engaged in two difficult trade negotiations, one with Japan and 10 other Pacific nations, and the other a proposed trans-Atlantic deal with European Union nations. The trans-Pacific talks are closer to completion.

President Bill Clinton used such so-called "fast-track" powers to push through the North American Free Trade Agreement among the U.S., Canada and Mexico in 1993. President George W. Bush used fast-track authority to push through Congress the Central American Free Trade Agreement in 2005.

The fast track process, more formally known as "trade promotion authority," empowers presidents to negotiate trade deals and then present them to Congress for up-or-down votes, with no amendments allowed.

Such trade deals have always been more popular with Republicans than Democrats.

That's largely because business interests aligned with Republicans have always formed the core support for efforts to expand trade, while labor unions traditionally supportive of Democrats claim trade deals like NAFTA have cost U.S. jobs, helping to send them overseas.

Politically, what it means is that Republican House Speaker John Boehner is on President Barack Obama's side this time. Fast-track critics Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and former House Speaker Rep. Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic congressional leaders, are working against the president from their own party.

The day after Obama asked for fast-track authority in his State of the Union policy address to Congress last month, Reid asserted: "I'm against fast track. ... Everyone would be well-advised just to not push this right now."

White House spokesman Jay Carney said Tuesday that despite such objections from Democratic leaders, "we're going to continue to press for this priority."

Carney was asked whether recent generally pessimistic-sounding comments on prospects for fast track by Vice President Joe Biden to a Democratic conference could be taken as recognition by the White House that the trade legislation wasn't going anywhere anytime soon.

Carney said no but added that the administration is "mindful ... that there are differing views in both parties, not just the Democratic Party" on the subject.

But opposition to the trade deals is more pronounced on the Democratic side. Late last year, 151 House Democrats, roughly three-quarters of the chamber's Democratic membership, signed a letter to Obama signaling their opposition to granting him fast-track trade authority.

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