McConnell says Obama 'born again' on trade agenda

The Senate's top Republican reiterated on Wednesday that he is ready to work with the Obama administration on its ambitious trade agenda. 

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellSenate passes 0B defense bill Overnight Health Care: New GOP ObamaCare repeal bill gains momentum Overnight Finance: CBO to release limited analysis of ObamaCare repeal bill | DOJ investigates Equifax stock sales | House weighs tougher rules for banks dealing with North Korea MORE of Kentucky said that he is involved in "active discussions" to move ahead on Trade Promotion Authority, which would give Congress an up or down vote on any trade agreements that reach Capitol Hill.

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”I am happy the president has now become a born-again free trader. It's high-time," McConnell told reporters.

"He's only got two years left. We think this is an area we can make progress and you can look for us to act on TPA," he said. 

McConnell didn't provide any timing on when the Republican Senate may consider legislation.

Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), who is now chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, has said that fast-track is a top priority for him and he wants to get it done early this year.

McConnell called fast-track "an enormous grant of power, obviously, from a Republican Congress to a Democratic president but that’s how much we believe in trade as an important part of America's economy."

Trade has been a top priority for the Obama White House, which has done the bulk of the work on the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and started talks with the European Union, among tackling a slew of other trade initiatives.

TPP negotiations on the pact started shortly before Obama took office and negotiators want to complete them early this year. 

Two years ago, the president asked Congress to grant him fast-track authority but efforts to pass any legislation have stalled out so far.

Fast-track authority was last crafted in 2002 and lapsed during the Bush administration in 2007.

Business groups, which support fast-track, say it is needed to provide a guarantee that U.S. lawmakers won't change the pact once it reaches Capitol Hill.

Historically, passage of a trade promotion bill has almost always been difficult and this time around may not be much different. 

A group of House Democrats as well as the AFL-CIO and other outside groups say they are determined to block any efforts to grant the president fast-track authority.

They have expressed concern about the lack of transparency around the contents of TPP as well as what they see as negative effects on the U.S. economy. 

Amid those Democratic protestations, Republicans have identified trade as an area where Congress and the White House can work together.

“This is an area where we can do something important for the country,” McConnell said. 

"The big challenge for the president is going to be able to get his own members to give him the authority to negotiate this deal and to send it up to us."