WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A push by the White House to woo free trade skeptics on Capitol Hill will help bills through the next Congress, but lawmakers are unlikely to simply wave through legislation that holds the key to deals covering two-thirds of the world economy.
President Barack Obama plans to advocate for a bill allowing the administration to negotiate trade deals and fast-track them through Congress with no amendments.
Fast-track authority, likely the first test of free trade sentiment in the new Congress, will require 218 votes in the House of Representatives and 60 in the Senate to avoid a filibuster, a Senate delaying tactic.
A Reuters examination of lawmakers’ voting records and trade views suggests passage is not a done deal even though Republicans, considered more supportive of trade, won control of both chambers of Congress in November’s election.
That boosted hopes for a U.S. trade agenda involving deals with European and Pacific partners which supporters say will add nearly $500 billion to annual global output.
But the midterms also hit the ranks of congressional trade liberalizers. Trade supporters will have to shepherd relatively new or incoming lawmakers who are untested on trade, limit Republican defections, and convince some Senators to change past votes.
Virginia’s Gerry Connolly, a leader of the pro-trade New Democrats, expected fast-track to pass in 2015 but said: “It won’t be an easy vote, it will not be a slam dunk, the White House will have to fight for it.”
There is core support for free trade in the next Congress. In the House, 195 members have shown strong or moderate backing for trade deals, compared to 85-odd opponents.
But not all trade supporters back fast-track authority for the President, with conservative Republicans opposed to delegating power to the White House. In the House, 37 free-traders have voted against fast-track authority or signed letters of concern.
The 2015 House contains 219 Republicans who have not openly voiced opposition to fast-track and 17 Democrats who voted for three major 2011 trade deals. Connolly said the “maximum universe” of Democrat votes was 50, even with White House efforts.
In the Senate, 60 of the 2015 members have strong or moderate pro-trade voting records, although five of those are Republicans who have voted against fast-track before.
Passage of trade bills is not easy partly because the number of departing staunch supporters of free trade, who backed the last fast-track bill in 2002, outnumbers departing die-hard opponents two-to-one. Many newcomers have not shown their hands.
Roughly two-thirds of the 43 incoming Republican House members were endorsed by the pro-trade U.S. Chamber of Commerce, although some who spoke to Reuters wanted more information before committing to fast-track. Others oppose it.
Incoming Oklahoma representative Steve Russell, a military veteran and rifle manufacturer, said lawmakers should do their “due diligence” while Nevada state politician and small businessman Cresent Hardy said Congress should vet trade deals.
Business groups expect the final bill to be one both parties can support, although some steps that could sway Democrat skeptics could alienate Republicans and vice-versa.
New Democrat caucus chair Ron Kind warned if Congress did not extend aid for workers hurt by imports “the bipartisan effort could break down real quick.”
Reporting by Krista Hughes; Additional reporting by Howard Schneider, David Lawder and Susan Cornwell; Editing by Clive McKeef
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