President Obama is likely to face difficult questions at a summit Wednesday from his Mexican and Canadian counterparts on a slew of thorny issues that have been stalled by U.S. domestic politics.
Progress on the Keystone XL oil-sands pipeline, immigration reform and a major new Asian trade pact will be high on the agenda when Obama attends the one-day North American leaders meeting in Toluca, Mexico.
The “Three Amigos” summit comes as the Obama administration is attempting to wrap up negotiations on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a 12-nation trade agreement that includes Mexico and Canada and that has become a priority in the White House’s attempt to pivot toward Asia in its foreign policy.
But Obama has faced resistance from congressional Democrats in his push for trade promotion authority, also known as “fast track,” which would make it easier for the administration to negotiate trade deals without Congress amending them.
Last week, Vice President Biden appeared to acknowledge that the administration’s push for fast-track trade powers was unlikely to move forward, even as he made the case for the TPP and a separate European trade agreement to Senate Democrats. Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) has said he will not bring a fast-track bill to the floor.
Without that power, Obama’s push for approval of the TPP, which he hoped to complete last year, could be delayed significantly. White House officials said Obama would continue to emphasize the benefits of the Asian trade deal in his meetings with Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
“I think when people have the ability to review what will be an agreement that is profoundly in our national interests, that we’ll be confident that we can gain the support of members of Congress,” said one senior administration official, who was not authorized to talk on the record before Obama’s trip and so spoke on the condition of anonymity. “But we understand that the onus is on us. We don’t want people to take our word for it. We’re going to have to continue to make the case that this agreement is in the interest of the United States and it’s fundamental to our competitiveness in the 21st century.”
While the focus of the summit will be economics and trade, the three countries are expected to also discuss energy partnerships. White House officials said Obama does not plan to introduce a faster timeline for the administration’s long-awaited decision on the Keystone pipeline when he sits down with Harper, a vocal proponent of the project.
Last month, the State Department ruled that the pipeline, which would deliver crude oil from Alberta to the United States, would not significantly affect global greenhouse gas emissions. The report appeared to clear the largest remaining barrier to a project long opposed by environmentalists, but the White House has said that Secretary of State John F. Kerry is continuing to review additional factors before making a recommendation.
Supporters of the project have said it would create thousands of jobs.
Joshua Meltzer, a Brookings Institution fellow on global economics and development, said the State Department’s finding that the Keystone oil sands are likely to be developed regardless of whether the pipeline is built will probably give Harper another opening to pressure Obama.
“A lot of development is going ahead anyway in Canada, and there have been a few recent announcements towards the end of last year about some fairly substantial enlargement in that part of Canada,” Meltzer said. “A lot of this is going to happen, irrespective of whether Keystone gets built or not. And I think that’s probably part of the message that I would expect the prime minister to give.”
The White House said there would be no special message for Harper.
“There’s nothing that we could say privately that we’re not already saying publicly,” said a second White House official, also not authorized to speak on the record. “We understand and appreciate that the Canadians are eager to get a decision. Ultimately, though, we do need to make sure this runs through our regular order and that the process is very thorough.”
On immigration reform, which has stalled in the House of Representatives, Obama intends to provide an update to Peña Nieto during a broader discussion about border controls and to emphasize that the administration remains committed to pursuing comprehensive legislation, officials said.