JANUARY 30, 2015 — After aggravating Republicans with a defiant State of the Union address, President Barack Obama announced that he’s eager to work with the GOP — “to get to yes,” as he put it.
“The answer can’t just be ‘no,’” he told a group of students in Kansas. “I don’t mind hearing no to some things, but it can’t be no to everything; at some point, you got to say yes to something.”
The Senate neatly complied last week. It got to yes on the job-generating Keystone XL pipeline. Democrats avoided all manner of tough votes when they controlled the Senate. Getting to yes on Keystone was a long, messy, laborious process as the Senate debated many amendments.
But the Senate approved the measure to speed up construction of the Keystone pipeline. The vote was 62-36, with nine Democrats in favor.
The Senate said yes.
The president says no. He says he’ll veto the measure.
Obama has to find a way to get on board with this. Keystone is likely to be just one of several job-generating measures the GOP will send his way.
There is another course for Obama and Republicans to find some agreement and create jobs. The timing is ideal for long-overdue free trade deals with Asia and Europe.
The GOP traditionally supports such deals. The president’s party will be tougher to deliver — but that’s a challenge for him.
The two main proposals, known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership and Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, have been in the works for years. Negotiators reportedly are making progress, particularly on the Pacific agreement.
In recent months, Asia and Europe have become increasingly desperate to jump-start their economies. The European Central Bank is introducing a massive economic stimulus program. Japan is struggling to climb out of recession. America’s trading partners need these pro-growth agreements.
At the same time, America’s economy is on a roll. The dollar is strong, which makes products imported into this country less costly for Americans to buy. Companies in Asia and Europe are drooling over the prospect of expanding their trade with the U.S. — which puts America in a strong negotiating position.
Obama talks like a free-trader, but he hasn’t exactly made it a priority in his six years in the White House. In his recent State of the Union address, the president made his most straightforward plea to date for what’s known as Trade Promotion Authority. That’s the legislation he needs to give him flexibility to seal these agreements.
TPA, as it’s called, obligates Congress to consider trade deals on a reasonable timetable: No stalling. TPA also prevents lawmakers from attaching amendments that would, in effect, overturn promises that U.S. representatives made at the bargaining table. Negotiations can go forward with the confidence that Congress won’t try to nip and tuck a final agreement.
Congress can still reject an agreement on a straight up or down vote. But opponents couldn’t attempt death by amendment.
Not every Republican trusts Obama with TPA. But most understand the benefits of free trade and the essential role played by White House negotiators. As House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Paul Ryan said recently, trade is where the president and Republicans can find “common ground.”
There are more protectionists in the Democratic ranks, members of Congress who argue that free trade undercuts U.S. wages, fair-labor practices and environmental protection. A smart trade deal with Asia or Europe can mitigate those concerns and create U.S. jobs by boosting demand for our products and raising workplace standards outside the U.S.
Obama acknowledges the skeptics. “But 95 percent of the world’s customers live outside our borders,” he said in the State of the Union, “and we can’t close ourselves off from those opportunities.”
He’s right. Now he needs to get his party to “yes.”