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Is It Already Too Late for Obama to Push the TPP Through Congress?

President Obama celebrated the completion of the Trans-Pacific Partnership in Manila this week with leaders of the 11 other participating nations. They jointly declared, “We look forward … to the expeditious consideration and approval of the TPP.” The deal will only take effect if the U.S. Congress approves it. So how likely is that to happen ...

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President Obama celebrated the completion of the Trans-Pacific Partnership in Manila this week with leaders of the 11 other participating nations. They jointly declared, “We look forward … to the expeditious consideration and approval of the TPP.” The deal will only take effect if the U.S. Congress approves it. So how likely is that to happen in the remainder of this presidency?

To date, the Obama administration has been vague. The President noted, “The politics of any trade agreement are difficult.” This falls well short of a strategy. There are options available, but all are fraught with difficulties.

Before describing the possibilities, some important but heretofore-unremarked features of the terrain: The president notified Congress of his intent to sign the TPP on Nov. 5. Under Trade Promotion Authority (TPA), the earliest the president could sign the deal is Feb. 3, 2016. The earliest he could submit implementing legislation to Congress is March 4. That date starts a clock — Congress then has 90 legislative days to approve or reject the deal.

President Obama celebrated the completion of the Trans-Pacific Partnership in Manila this week with leaders of the 11 other participating nations. They jointly declared, “We look forward … to the expeditious consideration and approval of the TPP.” The deal will only take effect if the U.S. Congress approves it. So how likely is that to happen in the remainder of this presidency?

To date, the Obama administration has been vague. The President noted, “The politics of any trade agreement are difficult.” This falls well short of a strategy. There are options available, but all are fraught with difficulties.

Before describing the possibilities, some important but heretofore-unremarked features of the terrain: The president notified Congress of his intent to sign the TPP on Nov. 5. Under Trade Promotion Authority (TPA), the earliest the president could sign the deal is Feb. 3, 2016. The earliest he could submit implementing legislation to Congress is March 4. That date starts a clock — Congress then has 90 legislative days to approve or reject the deal.

Only it appears that the administration waited too long for this to matter. One of the major gains from the close TPA battle in June — the ability to force Congressional consideration — is gone. In the announced schedule for the House of Representatives in 2016, counting forward after March 4, there are only 85 legislative days remaining. This does not preclude Congress acting faster, but it does shift power from the White House to Congressional leadership. If this Congress runs out the clock and the TPP has not passed both House and Senate, the process would die and have to restart in 2017.

The other clarification this past week came from the U.S. International Trade Commission, which said it expected to release its TPP analysis on May 18. Given public concerns about the deal’s complexity and the opacity of the long negotiations, it is hard to imagine Congress acting before that analysis is available.

That winnows the options. Two of the small group of Democrats who supported TPA, Reps. Ron Kind (D-Wis.) and Gerry Connolly (D-Va.), had called for an early 2016 vote and warned that after March, it would be better to wait for the lame duck. Now an early-2016 vote appears infeasible. In fact, there seem to be only two paths open: Tackling TPP in the thick of election season or pushing TPP through during the lame duck period.

Each has serious difficulties. The “summer of trade” approach would ignore the wishes of the president’s fellow Democrats and be exceedingly awkward for their likely nominee, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who has reversed her earlier support for the TPP. It would also require very rapid congressional treatment; there are only 26 legislative days between May 18 and summer recess in mid-July. This approach would culminate in votes just weeks before the two parties’ national conventions. Practically, this would only be feasible if the president aligned himself tightly with Republicans in Congress and offered a significant sweetener —such as tax reform — to lure skeptical Republicans, such as those in the House Freedom Caucus. There is a little extra time on the calendar in September (17 days), but that’s in the midst of general election campaigning and may be consumed by other business.

What of the lame duck strategy? Only 16 legislative days remain on the calendar post-vote and they are “subject to change.” Even if there were solid majorities committed to TPP passage, that would not be much time to move the agreement through. If Republicans were wildly enthusiastic about the TPP, this might still be feasible. The president, however, has been pitching it as the most progressive trade agreement ever, and neither Senate Finance Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) nor House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) has yet to endorse the deal as negotiated. Further, the election process also may not foster a cooperative bipartisan spirit. It is possible that some Democrats who had worried about union opposition might approve TPP with the election behind them. But it is equally possible that erstwhile Republican supporters could oppose due to qualms about the propriety of passing legislation in the lame duck.

The Manila celebrations of the TPP this week were tinged with caution about the political challenges ahead. Rightly so.

FRED DUFOUR/AFP/Getty Images

Phil Levy is the chief economist at Flexport and a former senior economist for trade on the Council of Economic Advisers in the George W. Bush administration. Twitter: @philipilevy

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