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Republican Surge Changes Trade Politics

  • Jim Randle

Some long-stalled trade agreements could move forward now that there is a new Republican majority in the U.S. Senate, but getting congressional approval for these deals may require some unusual political alliances.

Mitch McConnell, who is expected to be the next Senate majority leader, and other Republicans have fought proposals by President Barack Obama, a Democrat.

But unlike many Democrats, Obama speaks in favor of trade agreements, opening the way for a deal with his Republican opponents.

“I think he is interested in moving forward," McConnell said. "I [told him to] send us trade agreements, [that] we are anxious to look at them.”

Trade supporters are trying to work out an agreement that would allow Congress to vote for or against trade deals reached by the Obama administration with other nations, but not allow Congress to try to change deals.

Controversial bill

The administration and congressional Republicans are focusing on a complex and controversial bill called the "Trade Promotion Authority," or TPA.

"My guess is you will get negotiations between the administration so they are ready to go with a TPA bill as soon as the Congress comes back," said trade expert Claude Barfield of the American Enterprise Institute.

Lori Wallach of Global Trade Watch said the Republican surge means certain Democrats who were working on compromises to win the votes needed to get TPA approved were pushed out of power. That could have the ironic effect of hurting progress on a Republican goal.

"I think the chance that there is a trade authority package that can get through the House is slightly diminished," Wallach said.

U.S. officials are working on a deal with a number of Pacific nations and a separate agreement with the European Union.

Focus of new agreements

Past trade deals cut tariffs to boost trade by making it cheaper. These new agreements are also supposed to harmonize different nations' rules governing health, safety and solving business disputes.

Many U.S. unions say trade deals protect the profits of large multinational corporations, undemocratically change laws, and do too little to protect American jobs.

"We need to put citizens first, not ignore investment. We will not have economic development without [it], but not this kind of lopsided investment where citizens rights take years, if we ever address the issues," said Larry Cohen, president of the Communications Workers of America.

Obama and other supporters of trade deals say they boost the economy and help support jobs. He has signed agreements with South Korea, Colombia and Panama.