Election Politics Might Delay Vote on Pacific Trade Accord

Obama's legacy-defining deal still faces high barriers on the Hill.

President Barack Obama speaks during his meeting with leaders of the Trans-Pacific Partnership countries, in Beijing, China, November 10, 2014. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais, File)

President Obama’s last, big task could very well be convincing Congress to ratify a massive trade accord next year. But Senate GOP leaders tell National Journal that the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership might not even come up for a vote until the last month or so of his administration, if then, due to political concerns from both parties.

“It’s going to be really hard under the hot glare of election-year lights to bring up something that will generate that much controversy,” said Sen. John Thune of South Dakota. “Whether there is the political will to do that next year remains to be seen. But if I was a betting man, I’d be kind of skeptical that there will be.”

“I think it’s unlikely that that vote occurs before the election,” added Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri, referring to November 8, 2016. “We’ll see how that develops and how much focus the president is willing to put on a vote.”

The TPP, which would strengthen the ties of 40 percent of the world’s economy through lowered tariffs, was finally secured by the United States, Japan, and 10 other countries last month. Even though the text has only just been made public on Thursday, Republicans, Democrats, and outside interests have already picked apart what has leaked and begun making up their minds. With the presidential front-runners—Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton—opposed in a protectionist play and President Obama entering his final year, few will be able to pressure members more effectively those they represent.

Congress didn't expect to vote on TPP the first few months of the year, as the agreement has to be public for 60 days before Obama can sign it and then send to Congress for a review period that would last at the very least another month. By that point next year, the country will be in the full throes of the presidential race and scores of congressional campaigns.

While the Obama administration succeeded in getting greater negotiating power—known as fast-track or trade-promotion authority—over the summer, the task ahead of actually ratifying the pact may prove more difficult. Several of the senior Senate Republicans tasked with pushing TPP—the biggest regional accord in history—over the finish line are skeptical of it.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch, who wanted the pharmaceutical industry to receive stronger intellectual-property rights under TPP, said he was “immensely concerned” it wasn’t the best final product possible in a Hill newspaper op-ed Wednesday. In an interview, Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, the No. 2 Republican in the chamber, said his enthusiasm for the agreement had “waned” since helping pass the key TPA trade bill this summer. Cornyn then admonished the White House for not lifting the export ban on crude oil after it lifted Iranian energy sanctions as part of the landmark nuclear deal struck earlier this year.

He added, it’s “a real question” if the TPP vote will happen in an election year and noted that the Democrats, who are usually against such pacts anyway, could flee en masse under the cover granted by their top presidential candidates.

“I mean all the Democratic candidates oppose it,” said Cornyn. “We had to work hard to get the 13 Democrats to vote for TPA. Some of them may be a little skittish, especially in light of Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders’s opposition.”

Of course, there is the possibility that some members might actually turn around in favor of the agreement, even after voting against TPA, whether because they favor free trade but don’t like Obama or because they don’t like giving up congressional power but like the agreement. “I don’t like fast-track,” said Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, the Democratic whip. “I voted against it. And [at] times, I’ve voted for the treaty. So I’ll look at it on its merits.”

But Democrats will be hard-pressed to approve an agreement that major environmental and union groups like the Sierra Club and AFL-CIO want dead. “From what we have already seen, it is clear that the threats of this expansive new agreement outweigh its benefits—for good jobs, for democracy, for affordable medicines, for consumer safety, and for the environment,” wrote the umbrella union group. “The hardworking families of the AFL-CIO will join with our allies to defeat the TPP.”

And even some GOP congressmen, members of a traditionally pro-trade party, have already announced their opposition to the deal. Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama told National Journal Wednesday that the historical precedent of trade deals are an eroded U.S. manufacturing sector, reduced wages overall, and an increased trade deficit. While supportive of TPA, North Carolina Senators Richard Burr and Thom Tillis have said that they will work to tank the agreement over a provision that benefits public-health advocates over their cash crop, tobacco.

“It’s not in the best benefit of the United States by any stretch of the imagination,” said Burr Wednesday, adding he would “absolutely, without a question” vote against TPP.

Then there are the senators-turned-presidential candidates like Ted Cruz, who have a “healthy degree of skepticism” of TPP and will be hesitant to support anything with the administration’s fingerprints. And there are other GOP members up for reelection campaigns in districts or states where support for the agreement could hurt them. It’s possible that even Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio, who helped negotiate free-trade deals as a U.S. trade representative under President George W. Bush, could reject the agreement over his auto-industry-backed concerns over currency manipulation. The administration had threatened a veto of the TPA bill if such a provision was included, calling it a “poison pill,” and it was defeated in a floor vote.

“As I have said repeatedly, I will only consider an agreement if it helps Ohio workers level the playing field by cracking down on currency manipulation and grows ‘Made in America’ export‎s,” said Portman in a statement Wednesday. “I plan to review it very closely, but from what I have heard so far, I have concerns.”

This article has been updated.