Business leaders doubt trade vote happens before elections

Greg Nash

Business leaders on Thursday expressed doubt that a sweeping Pacific Rim trade agreement will come up for a vote in Congress before the November elections.

Bruce Josten, the top lobbyist for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said that there are several significant factors in play that will determine whether lawmakers will be ready to vote on the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) by this summer.

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"That means to me that it’d be pretty tight a question to see that [TPP] voted on in that time frame up until about June,” Josten told reporters during a press conference following the Chamber's State of American Business address. 

"So I think that’s a bit of a push to see that happen in that time frame," he said. But he added that a vote before November was not impossible.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has said a vote on the trade deal shouldn't come before the elections, though Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) has talked about holding a vote as soon as possible.

Josten and Chamber President Tom Donohue listed a series of hurdles that must be cleared before the TPP can be considered by the House and Senate.

They noted that the push by Republican leaders on Capitol Hill to pass all 12 annual appropriations bills through the regular process could eat up critical floor time between now and their summer recess in July, when lawmakers will begin an early, extended break for the presidential nominating conventions.

Consideration of the TPP must also adhere to a strict timeline set by fast-track authority legislation. 

Josten noted a that an influential economic report that is due out in mid-May from the International Trade Commission also weighs heavily on the TPP timetable.

Donohue said that the Obama administration must work with congressional lawmakers to address several aspects of the deal — notably on pharmaceuticals and tobacco — “without opening up the agreement” and then go out and find the votes and determine the best time to take a vote.

But they both made clear that there is a desire by Congress, the White House and business interests to approve the pact this year.

“I think everybody wants to get this done, I think everybody has to figure out how we’re going to get it done,” Josten said.

But the path toward resolving issues and figuring out the best time for a vote is still very much in flux.

Josten suggested a process of side agreements used in the past on trade deals to address concerns.

“Don’t forget this administration proposed side agreements to Colombia outside the agreement before they would send it to Congress,” he said. “There were similar efforts on other agreements, so this is not new to this agreement or any other agreement.”

Josten and Donohue also tried to quell concerns that lawmakers who were supportive of trade promotion authority (TPA) might vote against the TPP, including Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-Utah).

“It’s important to recognize that Sen. Hatch was a vigorous supporter of TPA and he didn’t do that because he was against trade agreements," Donohue said. "He just wants to make sure they are done right."

Josten said that it is best "not to conflate" the concerns of McConnell and Hatch who have each expressed concerns about certain provisions in the TPP agreement "because that has nothing to do with their otherwise well-ground and exceptionally strong support for trade."

"This is not unusual," Josten said. "And that’s what everybody is saying — they want to fix something — and we also are in the same boat with them because we want to get this deal done and enacted it into law."

In his address, Donohue reaffirmed that the Chamber would aggressively pursue completion of the TPP this year as well as completing an agreement with the European Union, among other trade initiatives.

In his State of the Union address on Tuesday, President Obama called on Congress to pass the TPP as an example of the United States using its powers to "mobilize the world to work with us” on issues of global concern.

He said the TPP will "open markets, protect workers and the environment and advance American leadership in Asia."