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 BurrThe Trail 2016: Putting the past behind them The Hill's 12:30 Report Burr pledges to retire after one more Senate term 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.

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“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 FromanFroman: Too early to start trade talks with the UK Dems push for US, EU cooperation on China's market status US, EU team up on raw minerals trade case against China 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 McConnellMitch McConnellReid: Trump is a 'hateful con man' McAuliffe: Clinton won't move TPP without changes Scalise says FCC chair should abandon set-top box plan 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 WydenRon WydenThe Hill's 12:30 Report Tim Kaine backs call to boost funding for Israeli missile defense Dems push for US, EU cooperation on China's market status 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 HeitkampHeidi HeitkampFeds weigh minimum train crew sizes Senate Dems push Obama for more Iran transparency Emerging technology-based consensus may help clear the air 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.