Obama’s trade agenda gets big biz boost

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Powerful business groups are intensifying their lobbying efforts for an expansive Pacific Rim trade agreement, a crucial move needed to push the deal through Congress. 

The National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) gave President Obama’s trade agenda a boost on Monday when it endorsed the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), likely setting the stage for endorsements from other major groups, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Business Roundtable (BRT). 

{mosads}The collective power of the groups, which have been
noticeably quiet on the issue in recent months, are positioned to play a central role this year in whether lawmakers — especially in the House — are willing to approve the top Obama administration priority.

Without the groups’ support, the TPP would have little chance of passing.

Business groups, congressional Republicans and the White House have found common ground on trade, giving the Obama administration some hope that a deal can be done before a new president takes office. 

Linda Dempsey, vice president of international economic affairs with NAM, said that while concerns persist about intellectual property and other issues in the deal, her group will work toward building broad agreement on Capitol Hill to pass it.

During the two months since the White House released the 5,000-page agreement, NAM has walked through the TPP chapter-by-chapter with foreign trade officials, their group’s own trade negotiators and congressional staffers about the pact’s details. 

Now, the group says, it is time to make its case to lawmakers, who must approve the deal.

“From our point of view, we’ll be working to educate members of Congress to understand what’s in the agreement,” Dempsey told The Hill.

“There’s been far too much criticism of the TPP, and it’s not based on what’s in the agreement,” she said. 

Ed Gerwin, a senior fellow for trade and global opportunity at the Progressive Policy Institute (PPI), said that the business groups must help to convince lawmakers that the deal will benefit their home states and districts.

Gerwin, who argues that small business will gain a significant benefit from the TPP, said that “this trade agreement is really more about what’s going to happen in Washington state than what’s going to happen in Washington, D.C.” 

National Foreign Trade Council President Bill
Reinsch, whose group lent its support last month, said that the larger groups such as NAM can deploy local businesses to sell the agreement on Capitol Hill, kicking off a grassroots effort that will get down into the nitty-gritty of state and local economics. 

Reinsch said that lawmakers he’s talked to have been clamoring for more information about where the business community stands. 

The more groups onboard, the better the deal’s chances of passing, he said.

But not having a formal position has made it hard for groups to ask their members to step up their lobbying — until now. 

He said those efforts would include asking smaller businesses to invite lawmakers to their offices and meet their employees. 

The business lobby played a central role in last year’s passage of trade promotion authority (TPA) for Obama. Also known as “fast-track” authority, the measure limits Congress to an up-or-down vote on trade deals with no amendments.

Even with TPA in place, support for the deal from Washington’s leading business groups will play a critical role in its passage. Without their backing, the TPP faces a nearly impossible journey to Obama’s desk. 

Momentum for the deal is even more vital in an election year, when candidates on both sides of the aisle are assailing it.

With the manufacturers committed, attention will turn to other top business groups, including the BRT, a group of chief executives that signaled last month it would back the agreement but has yet to make an official endorsement. 

The Chamber has also been quiet about its stance, poring over the text of the deal since it was released in early November. 

The group is expected to make an announcement this month, possibly ahead of the next week’s State of the Union address and an upcoming hearing of the International Trade Council. 

But most Democrats on Capitol Hill are unlikely to be persuaded by the arguments from businesses that the TPP will open more markets without hurting American workers.

Those lawmakers argue that the TPP isn’t any different than past deals such as the North American Free Trade Agreement, which they argue led to a massive job losses and lower wages from which the U.S. never recovered. 

NAM officials said they recognize the deal isn’t perfect and that “there are some principled objections to the TPP, so the NAM will continue to work closely with its members to address remaining barriers.”

“Importantly, we encourage the administration to work closely with the industry, congressional leaders and the other TPP governments to address these key issues,” said Jay Timmons, head of NAM. 

“Ultimately, the TPP is a significant improvement over the status quo — for manufacturers and for the broader economy.”

Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) has said that he would like to vote on the agreement as soon as possible but that he wants to ensure that the TPP lives up to the standards set by Congress in the TPA legislation. 

But Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has suggested the trade deal won’t receive a vote until after the 2016 elections.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) also has expressed serious concerns about agreement.

In his year-end press conference, Obama said passing the TPP is a top legislative priority heading in his final year in office. 

The president called the pact “a big deal” and acknowledged that opponents in both parties make for “an interesting situation.”

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