President Obama said he is “cautiously optimistic” that Congress will pass his signature Pacific Rim trade deal, but he acknowledged opposition in both parties and election-year politics could stall the pact.
“I am cautiously optimistic that we can still get it done,” Obama told a gathering of the National Governors Association at the White House.
“Labor unions — and I am a big labor guy — they are not happy with me on this,” Obama said.
The president said that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellMitch McConnellRepublicans at risk in 2018 steering clear of town halls GOP rep on Trump: 'God has used imperfect people to do great things before' McConnell: 'Winners make policy, losers go home' MORE (R-Ky.) and Speaker Paul RyanPaul RyanBorder tax is reverse redistribution CEOs come to defense of border tax plan 7 key players in the GOP's border tax fight MORE (R-Wis.) “have been supportive of this trade deal” though they have “concerns along the margins.”
Obama said he would send the agreement to Congress for a vote “at some point this year,” but did not indicate a specific date.
If Congress does ratify the agreement, it would be a major legacy-defining accomplishment for Obama.
The massive trade deal comprises 40 percent of the world economy and it would be a significant step toward achieving his administration’s pivot toward Asia.
But the agreement faces staunch opposition both Republicans and Democrats in Congress.
McConnell has warned Obama not to send the agreement to Congress for a vote before November’s election. He also has concerns about language in the deal pertaining to tobacco products, a major export from his home state.
Obama acknowledged those differences with McConnell, with whom he met earlier in February.
Ryan dealt a blow to the sweeping trade deal two weeks ago, saying it does not yet have enough votes to pass the House.
The 2016 presidential campaign has also scrambled the politics of trade. While Republicans are traditionally supportive of free trade, the party’s presidential frontrunner, Donald TrumpDonald TrumpWH adviser Stephen Miller: 'Nothing wrong' with Trump travel order Mellman: Rating the presidents Webb: The future of conservatism MORE, has slammed Obama’s trade agenda.
Both Democratic candidates, former secretary of State Hillary ClintonHillary Rodham ClintonFEC commissioner: 'I will not be silenced' Republicans at risk in 2018 steering clear of town halls Liberal ‘lies’ about President Trump MORE and Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersRep. John Lewis: Ellison is 'right person' to lead DNC DeVos should ‘persist’ despite liberal opposition Drug importation from other countries will save dollars and lives MORE (I-Vt.), oppose the deal.
“The presidential campaigns have created some noise and roiled things a little bit within the Republican Party and in the Democratic Party around this issue,” Obama said.
The president offered a lengthy defense of the deal, saying “it is indisputable” American workers and businesses “will be better off than the existing trade regime” by cutting tariffs and boosting American exports in the rapidly expanding Asia-Pacific region.
“Our concern there was that China was the 800-pound gorilla and if we allowed them to set trade rules out there, American business and American workers were going to be cut out,” Obama said.
But if the United States set the standards, “then it would be an improvement for American businesses and American workers and we would know we would be able to compete in those areas for years to come.”