The president will meet with Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper Wednesday in Toluca, Mexico, for the North American Leaders' Summit with a full agenda, covering commerce among the three North American Free Trade Agreement partners, immigration, energy and security.
The talks will highlight how increasingly interrelated the three economies are 20 years since NAFTA took effect. But they will also illustrate the limits of Obama's power, his hands tied on immigration by congressional Republicans and on trade by his fellow Democrats.
The summit also unfolds against other tensions, including revelations that the National Security Agency spied on Pena Nieto before he was elected and gained access to former Mexican President Felipe Calderon's email system when he was in office.
To the North, Canadian leaders have voiced frustration at the amount of time the Obama administration has taken to decide whether to approve the Keystone XL pipeline that would carry oil from tar sands in western Canada 1,179 miles to Nebraska, where existing pipelines would then carry the crude to refineries on the Texas Gulf Coast.
The NSA and pipeline issues could surface in one-on-one talks that Obama plans to have with Pena Nieto and Harper on the summit's sidelines but are not expected to be a factor in the broader, joint discussions among the three leaders.
Obama met Pena Nieto last year when he traveled to Mexico. Wednesday's visit is scheduled to last less than nine hours.
Keeping with the trade focus of the trip, the White House said that while en route to Mexico, Obama will sign an executive order that would speed up paperwork required for international transactions. The order would streamline the process for approving import or export cargo by permitting companies to submit their documentation to the federal government electronically.
Twenty years after NAFTA's approval, trade experts say the agreement is due for an upgrade to take into account the current globalized environment and to address issues not touched in the original pact. But rather than reopen NAFTA, the three countries are instead relying on negotiations underway to complete the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade bloc of 12 countries in the Americas, Asia and the Pacific.
The Obama administration is hoping those negotiations are completed this year. The U.S. is also in negotiations over a Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership with the European Union. But the president is facing stiff election-year resistance from Democratic leaders over his desire to get "fast track" trade authority, which would require Congress to give yes-or-no votes on the trade agreements and deny lawmakers the opportunity to amend them.
Both Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., have made clear they don't want Obama pushing the issue this year. Trade agreements have typically been more popular with Republicans than with Democrats; business groups tend to support the removal of trade barriers whereas labor unions fear the loss of jobs. President Bill Clinton faced staunch Democratic opposition when he pressed for NAFTA approval in 1993.
Obama expressed his desire to win the agreements during his State of the Union address last month. But he has since focused on domestic economic policies and hasn't drawn attention to the trade issue. Still, White House officials say the president will make it clear to Pena Nieto and Harper that the Trans Pacific Partnership negotiations, which are further along than the ones with the European Union, should be completed this year.
"We're going to continue to press for this priority, as we have in the past, mindful, of course, and recognizing that there are differing views on these issues in both parties, not just the Democratic Party," White House spokesman Jay Carney said Monday when asked about the lack of support from the president's party.
Mexicans in Mexico and in the U.S. have also been eager for the United States to overhaul its immigration laws. The Democratic-controlled Senate last year passed a comprehensive bill firming up border security and providing a pathway toward citizenship for about 11 million immigrants who crossed into the United State illegally or overstayed their visas.
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, has said he also wants to change immigration laws and issued Republican principles that, among other things, would permit those immigrants to gain legal status in the U.S. But he has since indicated that any legislation has little chance of passing before this year's November congressional elections.
Obama will likely face questions from Pena Nieto on the prospects for passing such an overhaul because of the economic effects of immigration on both sides of the border.
"This is one issue which is probably more relevant to the U.S.-Mexico relationship than to the Canadian-U.S. relationship but which may come up in the summit because again labor mobility is such an important issue," said Arturo Sarukhan, a former Mexican ambassador to the U.S.
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