WASHINGTON — Two decades ago, President Bill Clinton needed Republican support to win a bitter battle over the North American Free Trade Agreement. He also garnered 40 percent of congressional Democrats, including almost half the party’s senators.
President Obama may also win some close trade votes — first with the approval of a bill giving him so-called fast-track authority to negotiate the huge Trans-Pacific Partnership and then when the deal itself moves through Congress. This time, more than 80 percent of congressional Democrats will oppose the president.
Democrats have turned decidedly protectionist in the decades since the passage of Nafta, which have coincided with increasing globalization and steep losses of American manufacturing jobs. Even Hillary Rodham Clinton is breaking with her husband’s free-trade record, hinting that she may oppose the Pacific trade pact, which would bind the United States and 11 other Pacific Rim nations.
Mr. Obama and his unaccustomed allies, Republican congressional leaders, want to pass fast-track authorization — which assures a straight up or down vote on the Pacific pact and other trade deals — by the end of the month. It’s a slog. For now, fewer than 20 House Democrats are on board, and the maximum is 30; 10 Senate Democrats may go along, but no more than 15.
Although leading Republicans embrace the free-trade measures, a handful of the party’s senators and as many as 50 of its House members may vote against it, chiefly because it is supported by Mr. Obama.
Rational critics often conflate unbridled trade, which has hurt America’s industrial work force, and trade pacts. The complaints used to center on Japan, but now they focus on China, even though the United States has no plans for a free-trade agreement with that country.
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