[WILLIAM MAULDIN| November 1, 2016 |Wall Street Journal]
President Barack Obama is forging ahead with a long-shot bid to bring a 12-nation Pacific trade agreement to a vote in Congress immediately after an election that has stirred deep antitrade sentiments in both parties.
The administration’s push—which includes campaign support for congressional allies and targeted bids to convert naysayers—marks a huge wager that a majority of House and Senate lawmakers might brush aside the opposition of both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton to the trade deal and embrace it.
The stakes are high: A defeat of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP, would deprive Mr. Obama of a major legislative accomplishment in the last weeks of his presidency and could harm U.S. ties with other countries in the bloc. The administration and GOP congressional leaders may choose not to seek a vote during the postelection lame duck period if it remains well shy of drawing majority support.
“We’re doing everything we possibly can to maximize the chance of getting it done,” said Mike Froman, the U.S. trade representative, in an interview.
Mr. Froman visited Nashville, Tenn., on Friday to talk up the TPP’s intellectual-property provision with the record industry and to trumpet its proposed lower tariffs abroad with U.S. whiskey distillers. Mr. Froman, one of half a dozen top officials participating in TPP events last week, has spoken with nearly 100 House Republicans in the past few months, and cabinet-level officials have participated in more than 60 TPP events this year.
Trade experts following the TPP fight say the agreement probably lacks sufficient votes to pass the House, given the political rhetoric this year and rising skepticism toward trade within the GOP. Still, they say the odds of the deal’s being approved aren’t nil.
The TPP would lower tariffs and set commercial rules of the road for a 12-nation bloc that includes Japan, Australia, Mexico and Vietnam.
In pitching the deal to wary lawmakers, the administration is leaning heavily on foreign policy, arguing the TPP would shore up alliances around the Pacific and counter the growing economic and military influence of China. Officials also are telling lawmakers it is their last chance to support the Pacific deal, because Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Trump have said they wouldn’t back the current agreement or even a modified but similar version.
If she wins, Mrs. Clinton would likely reopen the complicated negotiations and eliminate major provisions backed by business groups, while adding binding rules on currency and other priorities of workers and environmental groups. Few experts think trade agreements would be a top priority in her first term.
The administration is working with Sen. Orrin Hatch (R., Utah), the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, and Rep. Kevin Brady (R., Texas) the chairman of the House committee that oversees trade, to lessen Republican disappointment with some of the final provisions of the TPP, including the length of intellectual-property protection for biologic drugs and the digital rights of financial firms.
“They’ve been working this agreement very hard,” Mr. Brady said. “I don’t fault the effort—I think this is an important agreement, so I’m really eager for these outstanding issues to be resolved.”
Mr. Obama is relying on Republicans to provide most of the votes for the TPP, as they did for “fast track” legislation last year that laid the groundwork for the agreement, reached last October, and expedited the process of congressional approval.
Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan,while strong advocates of free trade, have nevertheless echoed the committee leaders’ disappointment in the TPP and played down the chances of a vote after the election.
Mr. Trump’s rallying cry against all trade agreements—and his defense of tariffs—have moved Republicans, particularly in the House, more into the antitrade column. About a dozen of the 190 House Republicans who supported fast track have since come out against the TPP.
The administration is collaborating with business and farm groups to target the House GOP, despite its typical opposition to the president, in an effort to boost potential votes. Mr. Obama’s team also is trying to shore up and expand the ranks of the 28 Democratic lawmakers who supported him on trade by voting for fast track.
The White House can likely count on at least a small handful of additional Democratic votes for the TPP in the House, according to people following the trade campaign.
Mr. Obama and the administration helped the Democratic fast-track supporters who were facing re-election beat back primary challengers, likely assuring that all are re-elected, said Rep. Ron Kind (D., Wis.).
“I asked him to do a robocall for me, a quote on a mailer, a video endorsement spot. Every request that was made, they came through and honored,” said Mr. Kind, who leads the New Democrats coalition in the House, which supports business and economic growth and is a frequent source of votes for trade agreements.
But some of the TPP’s previous supporters have strayed this year. Republican Rep. Charles Boustany moved against the deal after previously leading the House’s trade subcommittee and helping found the congressional Friends of the Trans-Pacific Partnership Caucus, which trumpeted the deal’s benefits for U.S. exporters, including in his district in Louisiana.
Now Mr. Boustany is locked in a sprawling Senate election that may not end until a runoff later this year. “The agreement in its current form is not satisfactory to the congressman and many of his colleagues,” a spokesman said last week.
Mr. Obama is set to travel Nov. 18 to a Pacific summit to discuss the fate of the TPP, among other things. By then, congressional leaders will likely have signaled whether they will press for a vote.
Aides estimate four weeks may be needed to move the agreement through committees and the floor of the House and Senate, which is the amount of time the lawmakers are scheduled to be in Washington for the postelection session.
“It is a tight timetable, but it can be done in that time frame,” said Mr. Brady.