WASHINGTON -- New Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) pledged Wednesday to move full speed ahead to give President Barack Obama so-called fast track authority to cut massive new trade deals with little oversight.
The last grant of fast track authority, formally known as Trade Promotion Authority, expired in 2007. It allowed the president to negotiate trade deals without consulting Congress and to sign the agreements on his own. Congress' role was reduced to voting yes or no on the resulting deal, with no amendments and none of the procedural hurdles that lawmakers can typically employ when they don't like something.
Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) adamantly opposed granting that power to Obama in the last Congress while he was majority leader, but McConnell said Wednesday that he would make TPA a priority.
"We're in active discussion on TPA," said McConnell, adding, "It’s 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."
Obama hadn't shown all that much interest in the authority until his administration began negotiating two pending trade deals -- the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which involves 12 nations, and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership with the European Union. During his first presidential campaign he criticized trade deals and even pledged to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement.
"I’m happy the president has now become a born-again free trader. It’s high time," McConnell said. "He’s only got two years left, and we think this is an area where we can make progress and you can look for us to act on TPA."
The negotiations over and proposed contents of the two huge deals that TPA would facilitate are secret, except for leaks about the deals that have sparked alarm from labor and environmental advocates, among others.
But McConnell said giving Obama the power to proceed would be an example of Republicans coming together with Democrats to accomplish the goals of the American people, much in the way he said the Senate will pass with some Democratic support the controversial Keystone pipeline bill and new curbs on Obamacare.
He did concede that many Democrats oppose fast track authority, but said it would be up to Obama to keep them in line.
"This is an area where I think we can do something important for the country," McConnell said at his Capitol Hill news conference. "The big challenge for the president is going to be to get his own members to give him the authority to negotiate this deal and to send it up to us. He’s going to have to stand up to the AFL-CIO. He’s going to have to stand up to the political left of his party and help us do something important for the American people in the middle, the moderate center."
"What the American people are saying is they want us to look for areas of agreement, and this certainly is one of them," McConnell said.
Ironically, the pending deals are actually less popular among Republicans than among Democrats, and recently tea party activists have been denouncing them as "Obamatrade."
Generally, the Senate ratifies treaties on a two-thirds majority vote. But the enormous trade agreements would be unlikely to receive those 67 votes, between the Democrats and certain tea party-allied Republicans in opposition.
McConnell would need only 60 votes to pass the fast track authority, and then trade deals would require just 51 votes to pass. Americans would not see the text of the deals until they were completed by the administration, and Congress would be unable to amend the agreements.
Michael McAuliff covers Congress and politics for The Huffington Post. Talk to him on Facebook.