The Cable

Time Is Running Out On Obama’s Push to Pass Asian Trade Deal

The White House is pressing Congress to get Obama's Asian trade deal done before the president leaves office.

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The push is on to get President Barack Obama’s signature Asian trade deal done before he leaves office. It might be too late.

On Wednesday, U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman reiterated the White House’s argument that the Trans Pacific Partnership, a massive trade deal between 12 Pacific nations that covers nearly 40 percent of the world economy and 800 million people, is necessary to keep the U.S. competitive in the 21st Century. He also said it ups American influence in the region, where China is the dominant economy.

“The economic benefits of the agreement are matched by the strategic benefits of having the U.S. in the region,” Froman said. China has “followed TPP very closely because they know it will have an effect” in its neighborhood.

Froman’s comments at the Wilson Center were echoed by Secretary of State John Kerry. On Wednesday, during a speech at the National Defense University, Kerry said TPP contains the highest labor and environmental standards in any deal of its size, would lower trade barriers, and would create high-wage jobs. He called the pact a “critical component of the U.S. rebalance toward the region, advancing American leadership in the largest emerging market in the world.”

Rep. Brad Ashford (D-Neb.), speaking on Air Force One in route to Omaha Wednesday, also touted the benefits of the pact to his state. He said the president has been fighting to get Nebraska’s agriculture products into Asian markets.

It was all part of Obama’s push to get Congress to approve the stalled trade deal before he leaves office in a year. “With TPP, China doesn’t set the rules in that region, we do,” Obama said during his last State of the Union. “You want to show our strength in this century? Approve this agreement. Give us the tools to enforce it.”

On Wednesday, the U.S. International Trade Commission held its first public hearing as part of a required, independent review of TPP to determine its economic benefits to the U.S. economy. The forum also serves as a mouthpiece for opponents and critics of the trade pact. Whether the review ultimately will show TPP is good for the U.S. economy — as the White House contends — is yet to be seen.

Derek Scissors, an economics expert and resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, told Foreign Policy the White House effort is likely to fall short. “The easy bet is there won’t be a vote until the lame duck” Congress after the presidential election, Scissors said.

“If Republicans think they’re going to win the White House, there’s no reason to vote,” he said.

The pact touches on nearly every aspect of trade between the United States and 11 other countries in the Asia-Pacific. It calls for the gradual reduction or elimination of tariffs on hundreds of goods and services, from cars and trucks to rice and cheese. It also clarifies intellectual property rights for pharmaceutical drugs and movies, and as well as the Internet, and is meant to create new standards for environmental protection and labor rights in participating countries. The deal also creates a dispute-resolution mechanism.

The trade pact was brokered by negotiators in November and is contingent on approval of the 12 nations involved. Its prospects in the GOP-led Congress appear dim: Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), has warned Obama not to try to force it to a vote until after the 2016 presidential elections.

In the House, Speaker Paul Ryan of Wisconsin said in December he wanted to move on the deal as soon as possible. He has called TPP  “very important” and said it ”has a lot of promise.”

Ultimately, the decision could be pushed to the next president and a new Congress. Republican presidential frontrunner Donald Trump said he would scrap the deal if he takes the Oval Office. Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton has also come out against the deal she once supported as Obama’s secretary of state.

Photo Credit: Gabriella Demczuk/Getty Images

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