President Obama's trade agenda faces huge hurdles

Greg Nash

The White House is battling suggestions that President Obama’s trade agenda is in jeopardy after Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellMitch McConnellMcConnell: Trump White House will have ‘constraints’ Nearly 400 House bills stuck in Senate limbo McConnell-allied group: We'll back Rubio if he runs for reelection MORE (R-Ky.) said it shouldn’t bother to send a Pacific Rim deal to Congress until after the elections.

McConnell indicated he has serious reservations that the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership can win approval, and warned Obama would be risking an embarrassing defeat if he pursues a floor vote this year.

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The trade deal represents one of Obama’s last legislative goals and is a key part of his push to pivot U.S. foreign and economic policy toward Asia. Not winning approval for the deal would be a tough blow for the White House.

McConnell’s comments raised the possibility of a lame-duck session vote for the TPP.

Yet that would be a tremendous risk given opposition to the deal from all of the Democratic presidential candidates, including front-runner Hillary Clinton. The GOP presidential field also includes candidates who have been skeptical about the TPP.

The White House on Friday sought to downplay the significance of the Senate leader’s comments, offered in an interview with The Washington Post.

“There is no reason we need to wait that long,” said press secretary Josh Earnest. 

“It is possible for Congress to carefully consider the details of this agreement and to review all of the benefits associated with this agreement for states and communities all across the country without kicking the vote all the way to the lame duck period,” he added. 

Under the terms of fast-track trade legislation, the earliest Obama could sign the agreement is Feb. 4. The White House would then need to work with congressional leaders to set a date to introduce the trade bill, triggering a 90-day clock for both chambers to pass it. 

Earnest would not say when the president plans to sign the agreement, but he did say McConnell’s comments would not be a factor in the president’s decision. 

“Once that is done, we are going to urge Congress to get started on the process of getting this passed and approved,” he said. 

McConnell helped Obama win fast-track authority in a bruising fight this spring and summer.

The battle was intended to set up a vote on the TPP; McConnell’s turn-about suggests he is unhappy with the trade deal that Obama’s team negotiated.

He said there was significant “pushback” against the deal and that Obama would be making a mistake if he sent it to Congress.

Passage of fast-track raised the White House’s hopes that the TPP would face an easier road to becoming law. It ensured that the deal could pass Congress with a simple majority, removing the threat of a filibuster in the Senate. 

But the White House has encountered difficulty in building support for the agreement.

Text of the deal was just released last month, but major business associations that often support trade deals have yet to embrace the TPP.

Tobacco producers and pharmaceutical companies have been among the toughest critics. Tobacco is a key player in Kentucky, McConnell’s home state, while Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) has criticized the pharmaceutical provisions.

Many Democrats and labor unions have said the agreement does not go far enough to enforce environmental provisions and workers' rights.

Sources close to the trade debate described McConnell’s comments as a negotiating ploy, rather than an effort to kill the deal.

One source said that McConnell’s statement is a “shot across the bow,” aiming to buy time to work out an accommodation with pharmaceutical and tobacco companies short of renegotiating the entire deal. 

Administration officials fear rewriting TPP would torpedo the agreement because the pulling at one string in the deal will likely unravel the entire pact.

“It’s a real game of chicken and McConnell is saying to the White House, ‘we know what you’re thinking that you want to move quickly, but that’s not going to happen,’” said the source, who declined to be named.

Obama has tried to use his bully pulpit to rally support for the agreement. He discussed the TPP with leaders from nations involved at an economic summit last month in the Philippines and delivered a speech plugging the deal in Malaysia. 

Obama has also enlisted large corporations to back the agreement, such as AT&T, Microsoft and Archer Daniels Midland. But major Washington trade associations that have pull on Capitol Hill, such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Manufacturers Association, have not publicly backed it. 

Obama convened a meeting last week at the White House with influential CEOs and local officials designed to push Congress to act. 

"I think broadly the TPP has the full weight of a broad set of the business communities behind it,” Xerox CEO Ursula Burns said, according to Reuters. 

“We will put our full weight behind assuring that the members of Congress understand the fact that we really support TPP,” she added, according to the Post. “Slowing down, in our opinion, doesn’t bring a lot to the table at all.”