GOP senators warn Obama on tobacco carve-out

GOP senators warn Obama on tobacco carve-out
© Courtesy of Tillis for Congress

A pair of North Carolina Senate Republicans said Thursday that targeting tobacco in a sweeping trans-Pacific trade agreement puts congressional approval at risk.

Sens. Thom Tillis and Richard BurrRichard Mauze BurrJuan Williams: The shame of Trump's enablers Five takeaways from the social media hearings Overnight Tech: Senators demand tech firms do more on Russian meddling | House Intel releases Russian-promoted ads | Apple CEO says 'fake news' bigger threat than ads | Ex-Yahoo CEO, Equifax execs to testify on breaches MORE argued that they will work to defeat the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) if tobacco is excluded from protections provided to other agricultural products in the pact.

“By carving out tobacco from the TPP, the president and his administration are discriminating against an entire agricultural commodity, setting a dangerous precedent for future trade agreements,” Tillis said on the Senate floor.

“If any carve-out is ultimately included in the TPP, I will work hard to help defeat its ratification.”

But a U.S. official said that “TPP will not discriminate against any agricultural commodity nor will it exclude tobacco."

"On the contrary, TPP will provide protections to ensure that governments can implement tobacco control measures, while guaranteeing that tobacco has the same legal status as any other product," the official said in an email to The Hill.

Tillis argued that Congress didn't give President Obama the trade promotion authority he needed to move the TPP quickly through Congress on an up-or-down vote for “the freedom to indiscriminately choose when fairness should be applied and when it should be ignored.”

Further, he expressed concern that U.S. Trade Representative Michael FromanMichael FromanUS will investigate aluminum imports as national security hazard Overnight Finance: WH floats Mexican import tax | Exporters move to back GOP tax proposal | Dems rip Trump adviser's Goldman Sachs payout Froman heads to Council on Foreign Relations MORE “was dishonest" when he told lawmakers that other countries needed the tobacco exception and there are no serious doubts about that assertion. 

The Obama administration has formally proposed tobacco carve-out language in TPP, a move that Tillis called "unacceptable.”

House and Senate pro-trade lawmakers have warned that adding the measure would lead to a loss of critical support for the TPP when a deal reaches Capitol Hill.

“Over the last seven years, this administration has consistently picked winners and losers by rigging the rules in favor of the organizations and industries they like best,” Burr said.

Trade talks continue in Atlanta, and negotiators could announce a final TPP deal either Thursday or Friday, though there are still plenty of thorny issues being worked out.

In July, ahead of the last round of TPP talks in Hawaii, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellMcConnell expects Paul to return to Senate next week Former Hill staff calls for mandatory harassment training Gaming the odds of any GOP tax bill getting signed into law MORE (R-Ky.) warned U.S. trade officials not to target tobacco growers in a final deal.

McConnell has been in regular contact with the White House and the negotiating team about the direction of the TPP discussions, but had no new statement on Thursday about tobacco issue, an aide told The Hill.

Some Democrats, including those who supported trade promotion authority and the White House's trade agenda, say that tobacco should be excluded from protections to give countries more power to protect public health.

Senate Finance Committee ranking member Ron WydenRonald (Ron) Lee WydenLobbying World Overnight Regulation: House to vote on repealing joint-employer rule | EPA won't say which areas don't meet Obama smog rule | Lawmakers urge regulators to reject Perry plan New tax plan will hinder care for older Americans MORE (D-Ore.) on Wednesday acknowledged his support for removing tobacco from investor-state dispute challenges. 

Meanwhile, a group of 11 pro-trade House Democrats sent a letter to Froman on Wednesday supporting a carve-out and arguing that tobacco companies are trying to undermine countries' efforts to improve public health. 

A similar letter obtained by The Hill was sent by Sen. Heidi HeitkampMary (Heidi) Kathryn HeitkampNorth Dakota rep: Trump wants me to run for Senate No room for amnesty in our government spending bill Trump bank nominee gets rough reception at confirmation hearing MORE (D-N.D.) on Thursday to Froman and his team.

"The tobacco industry has a track record of misusing the investor-state process to threaten and intimidate countries that seek simply to reduce the death toll from tobacco use in their country," she wrote.

"It has had a devastating impact on public health around the global already."

This story ws updated at 4:12 p.m.