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Obama's toughest trade fight lies ahead

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The White House and Republican leaders have a lot of work to do to push fast-track trade authority through the House.

The Senate approved a fast-track bill just before leaving for the Memorial Day recess, with supporters beating back Democratic efforts to delay the bill or undercut it through amendments.

But while the Senate managed to work out its procedural knots, the House outcome remains in doubt with proponents and opponents each claiming they can win the toughest legislative battle of the year.

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The issue has made surprising allies of the president and GOP leaders, who back trade promotion authority (TPA) against progressives who worry about the effect on jobs and conservatives opposed to ceding more power to Obama.

Fast-track supporters are cautious but growing more optimistic.

Republican leaders see support for the bill building and may take a shot at bringing up the trade bills immediately after the Memorial Day recess. 

Rep. Pete Sessions (R-Texas), chairman of the House Rules Committee, told The Hill on Thursday that trade will likely be the first issue leaders consider when they return to Washington. 

“I think we’ve been a little bit shy of the runway until the Senate finishes their work,” he said Friday as the upper chamber was still scrambling to finish work on the bill.

Sessions said the importance of forging strong trade agreements and giving the U.S. a competitive advantage would win over Republicans and keep defections to a minimum.

On the Republican side, the fight is centered around a number of conservatives worried about empowering Obama on trade at the expense of Congress.

Rep. Paul RyanPaul RyanOvernight Finance: GOP faces dilemma on spending bills | CEOs push Congress on tax rules | Trump talks energy Overnight Energy: Trump outlines 'America First' energy plan in North Dakota Bible verse prompts GOP walkout after LGBT vote labeled a sin MORE (R-Wis.), chairman of the powerful Ways and Means Committee, has been rallying the troops, holding meetings for months to sell skeptical Republicans on giving Obama the authority he needs to wrap up sweeping global trade deals.

Rep. Charles Boustany (R-La.), a member of the Ways and Means Committee, said Republicans are making gains and he “hopes to pass the bill sometime next month because it is vitally important for our country.”

Still, trade watchers estimate that as many as 40 Republicans may buck their leaders and oppose the bill.

For GOP leaders, limiting the number of defectors is crucial with many Democrats staunchly opposed to the trade bill.

According to The Hill's whip list, only 13 House Democrats have publicly said they'll vote yes, with 77 intending to vote against. Democrats may provide no more than 25-30 of the 217 votes needed for passage.

Many Democratic lawmakers are keeping their powder dry, likely waiting to reveal their stance with their vote on the House floor. 

While Ryan and his colleagues lobby fellow Republicans, Obama and his Cabinet have ramped up pressure on Democrats to back fast-track and pave the way for completion of the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).

Obama made calls to a number of senators to win passage in the upper chamber and will also personally appeal to House Democrats.

Labor groups however have vowed to make a strong push to block the bill. Democratic Sens. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.) and Sherrod Brown (Ohio) lost their fight to stop the bill in the upper chamber but can be expected to press their House party members against fast track.

That has fast track backers hoping to move the bill quickly through the House and avoid a long summer fight with critics chipping away at their support.

Rep. Pete King (R-N.Y.) said that while the bipartisan trade effort wasn't stressed in the most recent GOP meeting, there is a growing understanding in his party that "we have to put our imprints on trade and also to show the world that while the president’s policy overall is weak, Republicans aren’t retreating from the world.”

“Once we have 218 we’ll run with it,” King said. 

Republican supporters are leaving no stone unturned as they look to bolster votes within their own ranks.

Rep. Kevin Brady (R-Texas), also a Ways and Means member, predicted a "very strong vote from Republicans,” and argued the president has to deliver on his part to notch a win.

But a close vote is likely in the works. In 2002, the final fast-track vote in the House required last-minute horse-trading to push it over the line — passing by only a three-vote margin. 

And even with supporters sounding a more optimistic tone, an uncertain fight lies ahead.

Before leaving town, Boustany raised the specter of the congressional recess as a game changer.

“When you send people home for a week you don’t know what’s coming back,” he said.