Obama’s Trade Deal is in Trouble


President Obama’s trade deal with 11 other Pacific Rim countries is in deep trouble with Congress.

Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) haven’t decided whether they’re going to support the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) — even after they helped the president win fast-track authority in a bruising interparty fight that was meant to ease its passage.

[Reposted from The Hill |  Ian Swanson & Bob Cusack|  November 17, 2015]

Republicans are deeply disappointed with the deal negotiated by Obama’s team, as are many business groups, which have yet to embrace it. Some are suggesting the administration may need to reopen the negotiations, even if that means seeking an accord with a smaller number of countries.

The presidential race will only make lawmakers fight harder.

Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton opposes the trade deal, making it difficult for Obama to pick up more Democratic votes.

On the Republican side, presidential candidates Donald Trump and Ted Cruz are against the trade pact, while Ben Carson supports it. A fourth GOP candidate, Marco Rubio, backed fast-track authority for Obama in the Senate but hasn’t taken a position on the negotiated TPP — a sign of the broad discontent among Republicans.

The reactions — from lukewarm support to outright hostility — have led many to believe the deal doesn’t have the votes to pass Congress.

“We believe the agreement is in trouble,” said one senior Republican aide in the Senate. 

Obama, Ryan and Hatch all worked overtime to win fast-track authority this summer. In doing so, they took on members of their own party and became targets for grassroots opponents of globalization.

The TPP was supposed to be worth the hard work; if accepted, it would be the largest trade deal the U.S. has negotiated since the North American Free Trade Agreement with Canada and Mexico. The pact is also a key part of Obama’s effort to pivot the United States toward Asia.

Fast-track authority means the deal cannot be amended or filibustered in the Senate, greatly enhancing its chances for approval. That’s why winning the power was such a huge victory for Obama, Ryan and Hatch.

Yet fewer than six months later, it’s looking like a hollow victory.

In a speech at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce one day after the TPP’s text was released, Hatch suggested the pact might need to be reopened by the U.S. Trade Representative’s office (USTR).

“While I understand that parties have deemed the negotiations closed, the agreement cannot enter into force if Congress doesn’t agree to it,” Hatch said in the speech. “At the end of the day, USTR may need to go back to the negotiating table and try again.”

Obama administration officials have privately suggested to business groups and the press that that option is 

While the U.S. has reopened talks in the past on bilateral deals, doing so with the TPP would involve getting the 11 other countries to agree to go back to the negotiating table, something all sides see as extraordinarily difficult.

A House GOP aide, acknowledging the difficulty, said it would be “a big deal if we had to go down that route.”

Still, Republicans believe Obama may not have a choice if the votes simply aren’t there to pass the deal.

The president only needs 51 votes in the Senate because fast-track prevents a filibuster, but the House vote would be a nail-biter.

Administration officials have talked about picking up votes in both parties, but Republicans believe winning votes from more than the 28 Democrats who backed fast-track would be a long shot.

Brand-name pharmaceutical companies are disappointed with patent protections in the deal, though the trade group PhRMA has yet to take a formal position on the TPP.

The accord would give U.S. companies exclusive control for five to eight years of data on biologics, drugs made from living organisms — a new frontier for the industry.

That’s a better deal than the industry has now from a number of trading partners in the TPP but less than its demands for 12 years of protections, a standard spelled out as an objective in the fast-track law.

Hatch and pharmaceutical companies had hoped the TPP would set the standard for future trade deals. Some company CEOs were furious that the Obama administration only won five years of certain protections.

A separate provision in the TPP allows governments to impose controls meant to curb smoking and prevents tobacco companies from using the trade agreement’s dispute settlement system to sue for damages on their investments. The tobacco provisions are sure to cost the deal votes from North Carolina Republicans in the House and Senate, and GOP aides don’t believe they will win the administration any new votes.

It’s possible Congress could wait for a lame-duck session to consider the TPP. That would at least alleviate the pressure of taking it up during a presidential race.

Yet sources on both sides of the issue argue a lame-duck vote would be very difficult.

If Clinton were elected president, it would mean a vote in a lame-duck session on legislation that splits Obama from his successor.

And if a Republican were to triumph, there could be calls to wait to renegotiate the deal until the new president takes office. If a Republican opposed to the deal wins the White House, there may be pressure on the GOP to hold off on the vote.

Lawmakers in Congress who must make the decisions on timing have yet to decide, highlighting the uncertainty facing one of Obama’s last legislative goals in office.

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