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 McConnellThe Hill's 12:30 Report Five things to watch in round two of Trump confirmation fights This week: Confirmation fights dominate ahead of inauguration MORE (R-Ky.) and Speaker Paul RyanPaul RyanGOP chairman defends tax proposal after Trump criticism CBO: 18 million could lose coverage after ObamaCare repeal GOP group releases Spanish-language healthcare ad 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 TrumpOvernight Regulation: Dem asks SEC to probe health pick | Interior nominee questioned on public lands, climate Congress must ensure charities remain safety net for patients Biden to receive ‘welcome home’ rally in Wilmington MORE, has slammed Obama’s trade agenda.
Both Democratic candidates, former secretary of State Hillary ClintonHillary Rodham ClintonMichael Moore: Trump will ‘absolutely’ ban Muslims John Lewis betrays his own legacy with Trump comments 'Shattered' to tell story of Clinton's failed presidential bid MORE and Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersTrump's Interior pick: Climate change ‘not a hoax’ Sanders to roll out bill letting Medicare negotiate drug prices Sanders warns HHS pick could move healthcare in 'wrong direction' 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.”