Will a Republican Senate Be Good for Trade?

November 3, 2014 5:30 PM

If voters give the GOP control of the Senate on November 4, as many polls suggest, the prospects of approving Trade Promotion Authority (TPA, or "fast track"), the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), and the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) are likely to improve. There are four reasons for this assessment.

First, Senator Harry Reid (D-NV) will lose his post as Senate Majority Leader to Senator Mitch McConnell (R-KY). The Senate Majority Leader exercises a powerful influence over the Senate calendar. Reid already used this power to poke President Obama in the eye after the president championed TPA and TPP in his January 2014 State of the Union address. This was not a casual disagreement between the two Democrat leaders: Reid has a long record of opposing trade agreements. By contrast McConnell is a staunch supporter.

Second, the Republican Party needs to shed its obstructionist image. One thing Republicans and Obama can agree on is trade liberalization—specifically TPA, TPP, and even TTIP as the negotiations get off the starting block. The speculation circulating two months ago that a Republican victory would tempt the GOP to oppose everything Obama supports has no application to trade.

Third, a Pew Research Center poll published on September 10 shows that Americans are lukewarm at best about new trade agreements, and organized labor is adamantly opposed. Still, the business community energetically supports both the TPP and TTIP. If Republicans control the Senate as well as the House, the GOP will have no excuse to offer its business supporters if trade deals die in the legislative chambers.

Fourth and finally, while President Obama may be gearing up for confrontations with a Republican Congress over budget, health care, environment, immigration, and other issues, he badly wants a legacy of some accomplishment for his second term. The Republicans will likely have no objection to giving him TPA, TPP, and TTIP legacies as long as they can share in the credit and run against the legacy of Obamacare and other government interventionist policies in 2016.

There has been some talk that Obama would try to get the lame duck session of Congress to approve TPA, which might speed the negotiations on TPP and even TTIP to conclusion. But that seems unlikely. The lame duck session will probably be too crowded with other issues (such as "tax extenders") to find much time for TPA. And if time were available, so long as Senator Reid wields the gavel, TPA would not be a priority.

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Gary Clyde Hufbauer Senior Research Staff

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