President Barack Obama will ask Congress on Friday for authority to fold together trade agencies to help boost exports, a reorganization that could help inoculate him against Republican election-year charges that he is a big-government liberal.
Obama was set to announce the request at 11:20 a.m. He is expected to cast it as an effort to make the government leaner and more efficient, reducing bureaucracy for export-oriented companies. It comes amid growing concerns about huge deficits and the size of the federal government.
The president wants to fold together the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR), the U.S. Export-Import Bank, Overseas Private Investment Corp, the Trade and Development Agency, the Small Business Administration and parts of the Commerce Department under one roof - something that has been under discussion for years.
Last March, he asked White House budget officials to examine whether to merge the groups as a way to save money and ensure that U.S. export promotion is as efficient as possible.
A White House official said on Friday that the goal of the consolidation was to save $3 billion over 10 years. It may also lead to the loss of 1,000 to 2,000 jobs through attrition, the official said.
Obama will seek a vote in Congress within three months on the proposal, which may meet resistance from some lawmakers who have voiced concerns the risks of putting small, focused trade agencies into a large bureaucracy.
Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, one of Obama's fellow Democrats, and some other senior lawmakers have argued that the USTR, a cabinet-level agency of some 240 career employees, may lose its focus in a larger department.
But Obama is expected to say the move will help achieve his goal of doubling U.S. exports in five years - from $1.57 trillion in 2009 to $3.14 trillion by 2015.
With the November presidential election nearing, the White House has been working to highlight Obama's efforts to get things done in Washington in spite of gridlock in Congress. Any resistance to the reorganization proposal is likely to be cast by the White House as an example of Capitol Hill obstructionism.
Obama's announcement appeared to catch Republicans by surprise. They said they were reserving judgment until they had seen more details of what Obama was proposing.
"After presiding over one of the largest expansions of government in history, and a year after raising the issue in his last State of the Union, it's interesting to see the president finally acknowledge that Washington is out of control," said Don Stewart, a spokesman for Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell.
"We'll be sure to give it a careful review once the White House provides us with the details of what it is he wants to do," he said .
Republican presidential candidates vying to face Obama in the November election have been focusing in their campaign speeches on the size of the federal government and U.S. deficits, saying they pose a risk to the U.S. economy.
(Additional reporting by Doug Palmer and Caren Bohan)