U.S. President Barack Obama on Wednesday committed to urge lawmakers to back a bill giving trade deals a fast track through Congress, an effort some think could break a logjam on the issue and help secure major agreements under negotiation.
Speaking to business leaders, he acknowledged differences within his own Democratic Party on free trade agreements that he supports and said he would also make the case to unions that trade brought benefits for workers.
A bill to give the Obama administration so-called fast-track power, which would allow only yes-or-no votes on trade deals in Congress without amendments, has been stuck all year.
Obama said he planned to speak to congressional leaders on both sides to make "a strong case on the merits of why this has to get done."
Trade experts said personal intervention by the president would boost support for trade promotion authority, or TPA, in Congress, where there is opposition from some Republicans as well as Democrats.
"It should help move TPA along both because it will help persuade wavering Democrats that supporting it is the right thing to do and because it will demonstrate to Republicans that the president is willing to wade into the fight," said Bill Reinsch, National Foreign Trade Council president.
Analysts say fast-track authority would persuade other countries to make their best offers during negotiations, secure in the knowledge that any pact could not be reopened by Congress.
Obama said free trade is "tough politics" among some lawmakers because many Americans feel their wages and income have stagnated as a result of foreign trade.
He said his argument to U.S. labor unions and environmental groups concerned about the impact of free-trade agreements is that new trade deals, such as the 12-country Trans-Pacific Partnership, will help raise labor and environmental standards.
"Part of my argument to Democrats is: don't fight the last war," Obama told the Business Roundtable, noting that companies wanting to move offshore for cheaper labor had probably already done so.
Fifty percent of Americans think trade destroys jobs and 45 percent think it lowers wages, according to a poll from the Pew Research Center. Obama said anti-trade sentiment had also increased among Republicans.
Unions were disappointed by the comments, but the incoming head of the Senate Finance Committee, Republican Orrin Hatch, said Obama's "long overdue" support would be vital to pass TPA in Congress.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce said Obama should meet with and telephone members of Congress to make the case for TPA.
"It's vital to make this a broad, bipartisan vote," said Myron Brilliant, the group's head of international affairs.