When President Obama meets with his North American counterparts in Mexico on Wednesday, their pending trade agreement with other nations in the Asia-Pacific region will be at the top of their agenda. Yet that major goal, which Mr. Obama has made clear he wants to finalize with America’s trade partners this year, could be stymied by his own party in Congress.
Mr. Obama is traveling to Toluca, Mexico for the day for the annual North American Leaders’ Summit with Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto. The trip marks Mr. Obama’s fourth trip to Mexico and his first to Toluca, Nieto’s hometown, as president.
When Mr. Obama visited Mexico last year, he and Nieto confirmed their commitment to concluding negotiations on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). And in his State of the Union address last month, Mr. Obama called on Congress to grant him “trade promotion authority,” which would allow him to get a faster, up-or-down vote to finalize the TPP.
“The president has put a lot of time and energy into the negotiation of TPP,” a senior administration official told reporters last week. “We have now progressed to the point that we are really dealing with some final sets of sensitive issues in each of the nations, which is normal -- as you get towards the end of a trade agreement, you have some of the most difficult issues to nail down.”
This is a critical point in negotiations over an ambitious trade deal that would encompass roughly 40 percent of the global economy in the TPP countries. The administration says it views the deal as an opportunity to build on NAFTA -- by introducing additional standards, for instance, on issues like labor and the environment..
Yet while the administration nails down the details with trade partners, Democrats in Congress have been increasingly vocal about their concerns with the level of transparency surrounding the pact and the legislation to fast-track it. Last week, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., called the legislation that would grant the president fast-track authority for the TPP (sponsored by former Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., - who was just confirmed as ambassador to China - and Rep. Dave Camp, R-Mich.) “unacceptable.”
“I have worked with many of our colleagues to try to find some common ground but in its present form it is unacceptable,” she said, adding, “That is not... a rejection of the president's trade agenda... But the trade issue is a very important one because we're the party of John F. Kennedy, a party of free trade, fair trade, and we believe that the global economy is here to stay and we're part of it. But as Mr. Van Hollen said, we want to export products overseas, not transport jobs overseas.”
Two weeks earlier, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., went to the Senate floor to voice his opposition to fast-tracking the trade deal.
“Everyone knows how I feel about this,” he said. “Sen. Baucus knows... The White House knows. Everyone would be well-advised to not push this right now.”
Vice President Joe Biden seemed sympathetic to congressional Democrats’ concerns when he answered their questions in a closed-door question-and-answer session last week, a Democratic aide told CBS News and other media outlets. The administration, however, has said the second-hand account of a Democratic aide does not represent Biden’s position, nor does it give any indication of what Mr. Obama will say to Nieto or Harper on Wednesday.
“I have seen President Obama and Vice President Biden both make the case for TPP publicly and privately,” an administration official said. “And we will indicate, frankly, to our partners in Mexico and Canada as we have to the American people that we believe TPP is in our interest and that we should try to complete an ambitious agreement this year.”
The current opposition to the fast-track legislation isn’t an insurmountable roadblock, an administration official said, pointing to the fact that Mr. Obama worked with Congress to approve trade deals with South Korea, Colombia and Panama.
“So we’ve proven we can get high-standard trade agreements through Congress,” the official said. “And I think when people have the ability to review what will be an agreement that is profoundly in our national interests, that we’ll be confident that we can gain the support of members of Congress. But we understand that the onus is on us.”
White House spokesman Jay Carney, meanwhile, suggested that the Democratic opposition was to be expected.
“The differing opinions on these matters are not new,” he said Tuesday. “Obviously, the president will be speaking to this during his visit broadly, in terms of what the agenda is and what the discussions will be at the summit. But we shouldn't pretend that the wheel has been recreated here when we talk about the differing views that people have on matters of trade expansion.”
Before attending the North American Leaders’ Summit, Mr. Obama will have a bilateral meeting with Nieto and then a working lunch with Nieto and Harper. Mr. Obama will also have an opportunity to speak one-on-one with Harper. The three leaders will also engage with business leaders and academics focused on the North American relationship.
The TPP isn’t the only lingering issue that will hang over the meetings -- Harper is expected to press Mr. Obama to approve the Keystone XL pipeline.
“We understand the interest of the Canadian government on this issue. They’ve been very clear with us, as they have been publicly, that they would like to see this issue resolved,” a senior administration official said. “I think what President Obama will do is explain to him where we are in the review of the Keystone Pipeline, and indicate that we’ll of course let our Canadian friends know when we’ve arrived at a decision.”
Meanwhile, on last year’s trip to Mexico, Mr. Obama made the case that immigration reform in the U.S. would be good for Mexico -- but that issue remains lingering as well.
“With respect to immigration, I think President Pena Nieto has a very good understanding, frankly, of the state of play in the United States,” an administration official said.
The North American leaders are also expected to work on issues like facilitating Trusted Traveler Programs among our three countries, collaborating more effectively on transportation planning, regulatory cooperation, and cooperative educational efforts.