Hoyer 'not optimistic' about trade bills

House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said Tuesday he's "not optimistic" that new foreign trade deals will pass through Congress this year.

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President Obama has made expanded trade authority a top priority of 2014, a position he emphasized in last week's State of the Union address. But Hoyer, the second-ranking House Democrat, said divisions in both parties would pose high hurdles to passage.

"Both parties have significant areas of concern with respect to trade promotion authority. I think there's a difficult path forward, if there is a path forward," he said during a press briefing in the Capitol. "I won't say I'm pessimistic, [but] I'm not optimistic. … I just think it's a tougher road than I've seen before."

The remarks come just hours before House Democrats are scheduled to meet with Obama at the White House to discuss the party's policy strategy ahead of this year's midterm elections.

Rep. Xavier Becerra (Calif.), chairman of the Democratic Caucus, said Tuesday that the issue of trade authority would likely be the source of "robust discussion" at that meeting.

"The president has made trade a big part of his agenda. We agree, so long as it's fair trade that lets … our manufacturers send our American products abroad and not simply open our doors so that people can flood our markets with their goods," Becerra said after a closed-door caucus meeting in the Capitol. "We want to make sure that it's free, but we want to make sure that it's also fair.

"Where we end up, we'll see," Becerra said.

Obama called last week for Congress to grant him so-called "fast-track" authority in his trade dealings with Europe and Asia. Such a move would prevent Congress from amending trade agreements proposed by the White House, setting the stage instead for up-or-down votes.

But the proposal hit an immediate wall in the form of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), who warned a day later he has no immediate plans to take up the president's offer.

"Everyone would be well-advised just to not push this right now," Reid said Wednesday.

Hoyer, for his part, downplayed the Democratic division on the issue, saying the Republicans are also split on the fast-track authority.

"My read is the Republicans are much more divided than they were on the … three trade agreements" approved under President George W. Bush, Hoyer said, referring to pacts with South Korea, Panama and Colombia approved in 2007.

The Maryland Democrat said he's spoken to Democratic negotiators — including Rep. Michael Michaud (D-Maine), who's been a vocal opponent of expanded trade authority — in hopes of reaching a deal this year.

"I've told Mike Michaud and others in our caucus that I'm prepared to keep my powder dry while they're trying to work towards seeing if we can resolve [differences] and get a comfort level for these agreements," Hoyer said.