WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama's Asia policy took a hit this week, and it came from a member of his own party.
The top Democratic senator, Harry Reid, announced that he opposes legislation that's key for a trans-Pacific trade pact that is arguably the most important part of Obama's effort to strengthen American engagement in Asia.
Since Obama rolled out the policy, most attention has been on the military aspect, largely because it was described as a rebalance in U.S. priorities after a decade of costly war in Afghanistan and Iraq.
But officials have increasingly stressed that Obama's foreign policy "pivot" to Asia is about more than cementing America's stature as the pre-eminent power in the Asia-Pacific as China grows in strength. It's about capitalizing on the region's rapid economic growth.
That's the importance of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP, an ambitious free trade agreement being negotiated by 12 nations, including Japan, that account for some 40 percent of global gross domestic product.
"The pivot is the TPP right now," Victor Cha, director of Asian studies at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service, told a conference at a Washington think tank this week on U.S. policy and the outlook for Asia in 2014.
The problem for Obama is that Congress needs to approve so-called fast track negotiating authority to move TPP along. Many of his fellow Democrats are against fast-track authority, which would require Congress to act on the trade deals negotiated by the administration by a yes-or-no vote, without the ability to make any changes.
In a bitterly divided Washington, Obama's in the rare position of having more support for a key policy among his political rivals, the Republicans, than from his own party.