Obama keeps lame-duck hope alive for trade deal

Obama keeps lame-duck hope alive for trade deal
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President Obama is preparing a last-ditch effort to win congressional approval of a massive Pacific Rim trade agreement before he leaves office.

The stakes couldn’t be higher for Obama, whose foreign policy pivot to Asia is built in part on the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which is intended to build an economic counterweight to China that would ensure U.S. access to a vital part of the globe.


Obama is in the midst of a 10-day trip that is taking him to China and Laos, where he will visit with regional leaders about the TPP.

While Obama has consistently cast an optimistic look on his trade deal, few in Washington share his optimism.

The lame-duck congressional session is the best hope for the trade deal, but moving the agreement will be difficult after a presidential election between two candidates opposed to the biggest U.S. free-trade pact since the North American Free Trade Agreement with Canada and Mexico.

“This is going to be a tough fall,” said one financial services lobbyist backing the deal. “But, you know, the numbers are still there. We can still do this if we get everyone swimming in the same direction.”

The pro-TPP thinking goes that if anti-trade fervor dies down after the election, there may still be the votes to ratify the deal if backers can bring it to the floor.

Some TPP supporters argue that if Republican nominee Donald TrumpDonald TrumpBaldwin calls Trump criticism following 'Rust' shooting 'surreal' Haley hits the stump in South Carolina Mary Trump files to dismiss Trump's lawsuit over NYT tax story MORE is defeated handily on Election Day, his anti-trade message will lose its potency and there will be more Republican votes on Capitol Hill for the pact.

“Once Trump is gone, you would expect a rebound back to more traditional levels of support [among Republicans],” said Tony Fratto, a partner at Hamilton Place Strategies, who is supportive of the bill.

Signs from congressional leaders don’t leave much room for such optimism, however.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellCongress averts shutdown after vaccine mandate fight House sets up Senate shutdown showdown Biden says he doesn't believe a government shutdown will happen MORE (R-Ky.) said recently that the TPP wouldn’t be considered this year because the deal has “serious flaws.”

And in early August, House Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanNo time for the timid: The dual threats of progressives and Trump Juan Williams: Pelosi shows her power Cheney takes shot at Trump: 'I like Republican presidents who win re-election' MORE (R-Wis.) said the TPP wouldn’t get a vote in Congress this year because there isn’t enough support.

Ryan and McConnell have both backed trade deals in the past and do not share the same skepticism of free-trade policies as Trump.

Yet both have some substantive issues with the TPP negotiated by the Obama administration that are shared by many of their chambers’ members.

House Republican leaders say the length of intellectual property protections for high-tech biologic drugs must be addressed if the White House wants a vote.

“As we have said for months, timing will be determined by progress on the substance — and the administration has a lot of work to do there,” said Brendan Buck, a spokesman for Ryan, in an email. 

House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Kevin BradyKevin Patrick BradyEconomic growth rate slows to 2 percent as delta derails recovery Democratic retirements could make a tough midterm year even worse Yellen confident of minimum global corporate tax passage in Congress MORE (R-Texas) still thinks a vote could happen before Obama’s term ends — if the White House picks up the pace of addressing lingering concerns. 

In the Senate, Finance Committee Chairman Orrin HatchOrrin Grant HatchLobbying world Congress, stop holding 'Dreamers' hostage Drug prices are declining amid inflation fears MORE (R-Utah) said this summer that passing a TPP that meets the standards set by the trade promotion authority law “remains a priority,” although he added that concerns abound.

Obama will need support from both parties if the deal is to be approved, and Democratic votes will be hard to come by.

Democratic nominee Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonRepublican Ohio Senate candidate slams JD Vance over previous Trump comments Budowsky: Why GOP donors flock to Manchin and Sinema Countering the ongoing Republican delusion MORE is under significant pressure from the left to ramp up her TPP opposition and lead the charge against a lame-duck vote.

She recently made clear that she will oppose the TPP after the election and as president.

“I oppose it now; I’ll oppose it after the election; and I’ll oppose it as president,” she said in an August campaign speech.

But the lame-duck push leaves Clinton in a tough spot, as her left flank urges her to oppose it loudly and often, even as Obama, her ally, tries to push it through.

Liberal groups opposed to the TPP argue that Democrats in Congress would face a backlash if they backed Obama’s deal in a lame-duck.

“It would be really appalling to see Congress blatantly ignore the broad bipartisan opposition that exists ... by forcing it through a lame-duck session,” said Neil Sroka, spokesman for the liberal Democracy for America.

In an illustration of that pressure, Sen. Ron WydenRonald (Ron) Lee WydenSenate parliamentarian looms over White House spending bill Democrats push tax credits to bolster clean energy Five reasons for concern about Democrats' drug price control plan MORE of Oregon, the top Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee who has played a crucial role in steering the trade agenda, has yet to decide whether he will support the TPP as he waits for any potential changes to the deal, an aide said.

The biggest champion of the TPP remains Obama, who has expressed confidence that it can be done.

“We’ve got a pretty good record of getting stuff done when I think it is important,” he said recently. 

“President Obama wants this as one of his legacy items. He’s going to pull out all the stops,” said the financial lobbyist.

Business groups are fanning out around the country in a grassroots effort to sell the deal congressional district by congressional district. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, a leading advocate of the deal, has organized dozens of recess events to present trade priorities to members of Congress and staff.

“We understand the politics on this issue are tough, but we know there is still broad support for trade that boosts economic growth and American jobs,” said Blair Latoff Holmes, the Chamber’s spokeswoman. 

Another business advocate said that the community’s nonstop efforts over the summer to hawk the deal are indicative of their seriousness on pushing the TPP through Congress.

“Our experience is, when we’re making the case, we do a pretty good job of getting people to support trade,” said Fratto. “I’m confident if we have that fight, we will win that fight.”