U.S. President Barack Obama on Tuesday night asked Congress to grant the administration the so-called "fast track" authority to negotiate far-reaching trade deals with Asia-Pacific and European countries and speed them through Congress.
"I'm asking both parties to give me trade promotion authority to protect American workers, with strong new trade deals from Asia to Europe that aren't just free, but fair," said Obama in his State of the Union address to Congress.
The trade promotion authority, also known as "fast track" authority, empowers the president to negotiate trade deals and then present them to Congress for up-or-down votes, with no amendments allowed. Without such authority, many trade analysts say, Obama's hopes to enact trade deals before he leaves office will be doomed.
The Obama administration is engaged in two ambitious and difficult trade negotiations, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) with 11 other countries in the Asia-Pacific region and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) with 28 members of the European Union, in a bid to "update the global trading system by creating a new set of rules for trade and investment."
"I'm the first one to admit that past trade deals haven't always lived up to the hype, and that's why we've gone after countries that break the rules at our expense," Obama argued.
"Ninety-five percent of the world's customers live outside our borders, and we can't close ourselves off from those opportunities," he added, vowing to conclude the trade deals with Asia and Europe.
While trade has emerged in recent weeks as one of the few areas where Obama and the leaders of the Republican-controlled Congress agree, a coalition of Democratic lawmakers and activists from labor unions and environmental groups opposes granting Obama that authority, arguing that those trade deals have hurt U.S. workers and increased income inequality.h Obama said last month that Democrats are still "fighting the last war" instead of looking forward to the benefits which trade can provide for U.S. workers.
Traditionally pro-trade Republicans have urged Obama to round up votes from Democrats for trade promotion authority and use Tuesday's prime-time address to build congressional support.
"We need the president to engage on this issue with his own party," House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Paul Ryan said last week. "We need him to make it a priority in the State of the Union."
"If President Obama can be more forward-leaning with members of his party, starting with tonight's State of the Union address, I think we can get this (fast track authority) done quickly," Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch said Tuesday.
It is still unclear whether the Obama administration could get enough votes to renew the trade promotion authority this year.
The last time Congress granted the president trade promotion authority was in 2002, and it expired in 2007.