Surprise! Why the GOP, Dems agree on trade expansion

In an era of polarization, trade is the rare issue on which leaders of both parties agree.

Which is why odds are high that a Republican Congress will give President Barack Obama the negotiating authority he seeks to conclude an Asian trade deal. Senate Finance Committee approval of Trade Promotion Authority legislation Wednesday night is only the first step—but its bipartisan 20-6 vote made it a strong one.

Republicans believe in trade expansion as a matter of free-market philosophy. In recent years, their tea party faction has slightly tempered that support with its suspicion of Big Business and Big Government alike. But on this issue its influence is no match for that of corporate interests who donate heavily to GOP campaigns.

Democrats are more skeptical of unfettered markets. Their labor union and environmental wings can back their hostility to trade expansion deals with both money and votes. That's why both Trade Promotion Authority and the Trans-Pacific Partnership are far more controversial within the Democratic Party.

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Yet at the highest levels, Democrats, too, have come to view trade expansion as in America's economic and national security interests alike in a world of global interdependence. President Bill Clinton, relying largely on Republicans, pushed through the North American Free Trade Agreement with Canada and Mexico and permission for China to enter the World Trade Organization.

Ships gather off the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, California in this aerial photo taken February 6, 2015.
Bob Riha, Jr. | Reuters

Obama, notwithstanding some delay, won approval of bilateral deals with Colombia, Panama and South Korea. Now he aims to complete both the Asia deal with 11 other nations, and a separate pact with Europe. Even though influential liberals like Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts may complain, there's every reason to expect Hillary Clinton would move forward on trade should she win the presidency.

Democrats insist on different terms than Republicans. That's why it took so long for Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch, a Republican, to reach a compromise with ranking Democrat Ron Wyden. To secure the approval of enough Democrats to pass the deal, Wyden had to bargain for increased transparency provisions as well as protections for labor and environmental interests.

Democratic skeptics complain that none of those provisions is enough. But all signs suggest they lack the critical political mass to stop it. Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid describes his stance on trade negotiating authority as "hell, no"—but isn't using his power to hold up the bill. House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi is backing a doomed-to-fail Democratic version of negotiating authority—but calls her goal "getting to yes."

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The improving economy, by somewhat curbing anxiety among American workers, has boosted the political backdrop for trade expansion. A Gallup poll last month found that 58 percent of Americans consider trade an opportunity for economic growth, compared with 33 percent who consider it a threat. Amid severe economic problems earlier in Obama's presidency, more Americans viewed it as a threat.

The results were evident in Wednesday night's finance committee vote. Republicans voted 13-1 in favor of the Hatch-Wyden compromise. By 7-5, Democrats favored it, too.