By Krista Hughes and Richard Cowan
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama plans a last-ditch personal appeal to congressional Democrats to back his trade agenda on Friday as his goal of strengthening U.S. economic ties with Asia hangs in the balance.
Hours before divided lawmakers were due to vote on legislation central to his hallmark Pacific Rim trade deal, a Democratic aide said Obama would attend a closed-door meeting of House Democrats, an unusual move which could indicate that the White House thinks votes among the president's own party may be lacking.
Many Democrats are concerned about a program to help workers hurt by trade, which must pass before the House of Representatives votes on the fast-track authority Obama needs to complete the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).
The deal encompasses 40 percent of the global economy and is close to completion. It would be greatly advanced if Congress gives Obama "fast track" authority for it.
The House has been wrestling with for weeks with fast-track, which would let lawmakers set negotiating objectives for trade deals, such as the TPP, but restrict them to only a yes-or-no vote on the finished agreement. The Senate has already backed it.
With a legacy-defining achievement on the line for Obama, House approval of fast-track would boost his hopes for a swift completion of the TPP, which would harmonize trading standards and lower barriers among the signatory countries.
Rejection by the House of fast-track, or the companion measure meant to aid workers, would be a massive blow to Obama. He has lobbied hard to win over skeptical Democrats and forged an unusual alliance with the Republicans who control Congress.
"We're expecting two close votes, probably two nailbiters," said Gabe Horwitz, economics director at the centrist Democratic think tank Third Way, who expects both measures to pass.
Although some Republicans are likely to oppose fast-track, the party has 246 House seats, meaning it could lose 28 votes and still cross the 218-vote threshold needed for passage.
A Democratic aide said 26 Democrats were ready to vote "yes," with another four leaning that way. Vote counters are betting that level of Democratic support will be enough to compensate for any weakness on the Republican side.
The trade debate has pitted business groups and iconic U.S. brands such as Nike Inc against environmental and consumer groups and unions.
In an unusual move and a sign of the severity of the opposition, the unions are also lobbying against the worker aid program, saying funding is inadequate.
Democrat Jan Schakowsky, who hails from Obama's hometown of Chicago and was an early supporter of his 2008 run for the White House, said some Democrats were willing to see the worker aid program die if it means stopping fast-track and the TPP.
"There are plenty of those who feel that's not such a bad price to pay for saving American jobs," Schakowsky, a trade skeptic, said on Thursday.
(Additional reporting by David Lawder and Susan Cornwell; Editing by Lisa Von Ahn)