NEW: Three nations will streamline border controls
The three leaders are called the "Three Amigos"
The Keystone XL pipeline is a major issue
The “Three Amigos” – or, as they’re more formally known, the leaders of the United States, Canada and Mexico – announced an agreement Wednesday to work on a plan to streamline trade and travel, including border controls among the countries.
U.S. President Barack Obama, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto agreed to streamline border controls to facilitate the movement of people through the establishment of a trusted traveler program.
They also spent a great deal of time during the North American Leaders’ Summit discussing efforts to broker a new trade agreement with Pacific nations, they said in a joint news conference after the summit in Toluca, Mexico.
Obama has called for “fast-track” trade authority from Congress for him to pursue the so-called Trans-Pacific Partnership, a massive free-trade zone.
But members of his own party, including House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, have voiced firm opposition to such authority.
Republicans seized on Vice President Joe Biden’s reported comments at last week’s House Democratic retreat in Maryland. There, he was heard conceding the trade issue was quickly becoming a source of frustration within the party, especially among labor groups that are key to midterms next fall.
“The jobs they seem to care about most are Democrats in Congress – not families across the country eager to join the ranks of the employed,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said in a statement.
Senior Obama administration officials played down reports about Biden’s comments as coming from “second-hand accounts.” But, they added, the White House remains firmly committed to its trade agenda.
“It would not be in the interest of the United States to put this on the back burner,” one official said.
White House spokesman Jay Carney insists that differences among Democrats over trade issues date back several administrations.
“The differing opinions on these matters are not new, and the fact that there are differing opinions within both parties is not new,” Carney said Tuesday.
Another area of friendly disagreement for the “Three Amigos” is over the Obama administration’s handling of the Keystone XL pipeline.
Canadian officials have grown impatient with the lengthy approval process in the United States for the contested project, which would transport oil from Alberta to the Gulf of Mexico.
While a recent State Department environmental impact study appeared to brighten prospects for approval, senior administration officials indicated Harper is not likely to receive the news many in his nation want to hear during the summit.
“I think what President Obama will do is explain to him where we are in the review of the Keystone pipeline, and indicate that we’ll, of course, let our Canadian friends know when we’ve arrived at a decision,” a senior administration official said.
The Keystone project has also divided Democrats, namely environmentalists who see the pipeline as a symbolic battle in the larger fight over efforts to deal with climate change.
While in Mexico, Obama faced another delicate balancing act over the issue of immigration reform.
The plight of undocumented immigrants in the United States, notably the substantial number of migrants who crossed the border from Mexico, is a major political issue south of the Rio Grande.
Latino special interest groups, a core Democratic Party constituency, have criticized the administration for its aggressive deportation policy as it struggles to find a long-term solution to the immigration issue.
Senior administration officials told reporters last week that Obama remains committed to comprehensive immigration reform that includes a pathway to citizenship for undocumented workers.
But that legislative priority has hit a roadblock in Congress, where Republican leaders have indicated there is little hope for a breakthrough this year before the midterms.
“With respect to immigration, I think President Peña Nieto has a very good understanding, frankly, of the state of play in the United States,” a senior administration official said.