No fast track in lame duck

Business groups have lost any hope that Congress will approve “fast-track” trade powers for President Obama in the lame-duck session of Congress.

With scores of Democrats opposed and liberal interest groups flexing their muscles, business groups say it’s certain the legislation won’t move this year.

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“The reality seems that if Reid hasn’t brought it forward thus far it’s unlikely,” said Stephen Ezell, a senior analyst at the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, which backs fast-track authority.

Senate Majority Leader Harry ReidHarry Mason ReidWith lives at stake, Congress must start acting on health care GOP’s midterm strategy takes shape Battle of the billionaires drives Nevada contest MORE (D-Nev.) has criticized fast-track and made no effort to bring it to the floor. Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron WydenRonald (Ron) Lee WydenGroup files lawsuit to force Georgia to adopt paper ballots Treasury releases proposed rules on major part of Trump tax law Rubio slams Google over plans to unveil censored Chinese search engine MORE (D-Ore.) has yet to even produce a fast-track bill. 

Lame-duck approval of trade promotion authority, which would make it easier to negotiate trade deals by making them subject to an up-or-down vote in the Senate, had long been a dream for the groups.

Now it appears the best chance for moving forward with the legislation would be next year — particularly if Republicans take over the Senate.

Sen. Orrin HatchOrrin Grant HatchOvernight Health Care: Azar defends approach on drug rebates | Trump presses Senate to act quickly on opioid crisis | Kentucky governor's Medicaid lawsuit tossed Sentencing reform deal heats up, pitting Trump against reliable allies Dem lawmaker calls Trump racist in response to 'dog' comment MORE (R-Utah), who is line to become chairman of the Senate Finance Committee under a Republican takeover, has said moving the legislation would be a top priority.

Ezell said that a Republican Congress could produce a TPA bill within the first three months of next year. 

But a Senate aide suggested that the White House and the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative would need to reach out to lawmakers in both parties to ensure passage.

Most House Democrats are opposed to fast-track authority, and could be even less likely to support it if it’s drawn up by a Republican Congress for a lame-duck Democratic president.

Many Republicans are also skeptical of the legislation, and are not keen on giving the powers to Obama.

The congressional stalemate could make it tougher for Obama to complete two trade pacts under negotiations: a bilateral deal with the European Union and the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement with Asian and Latin American governments.

Obama is headed to Beijing next month for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit where talks are expected to continue along the edges on the deal.

Ezell argued that if lawmakers want these trade deals to move forward that they have to understand that there is a strong link between trade promotion authority and the negotiations. 

U.S. Trade Representative Michael FromanMichael B.G. FromanUS trade rep spent nearly M to furnish offices: report Overnight Finance: Trump hits China on currency manipulation, countering Treasury | Trump taps two for Fed board | Tax deadline revives fight over GOP overhaul | Justices set to hear online sales tax case Froman joins Mastercard to oversee global business expansion MORE said recently in Foreign Affairs magazine that without trade promotion authority the nation’s trading partners lack the confidence to put “their best and final offers on the table” that could propel the TPP forward. 

Completing a deal without fast-track isn’t impossible, but U.S. negotiators would have less leverage. Negotiating partners could reasonably expect a deal signed by the U.S. could be changed by Congress.

In the TPP, a protracted stalemate between the U.S. and Japan over auto and agricultural market access issues is just one of the main reasons why a deal has yet to be inked. 

Fast-track has never been an easy lift for Congress and those hoping for a lame-duck deal could be accused of wishful thinking.

The last bill, signed into law in 2002 by President George W. Bush, squeaked through the House by just two votes after a massive lobbying campaign.  

In January, retiring House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp (R-Mich.) and then-Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max BaucusMax Sieben BaucusJudge boots Green Party from Montana ballot in boost to Tester Clients’ Cohen ties become PR liability Green Party puts Dem seat at risk in Montana MORE (D-Mont.) offered legislation along with Hatch. But after Baucus left Congress to become U.S. ambassador to China there was little movement.

Opponents say they will fight any new effort to pass what they see as an outdated model for handling globalization.

“We need something new,” said Thea Lee, deputy chief of staff at the AFL-CIO. “What we’ve seen are re-warmed versions of trade policy.

“This administration has been under the impression that it can take a current model and make small tweaks and in the end that’s pleasing nobody.” 

Lori Wallach, head of Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch, said at this point there isn’t any chance that Obama will get fast-track trade authority and there are “decent prospects that he never will.”