President Barack Obama acknowledged the obstacles his own party has thrown in front of his free trade agenda in Congress, but made a fresh pitch Tuesday for a massive Pacific Rim deal.
“It’s never fun passing a trade bill in this town,” Obama said in a joint news conference with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe – whose country is the second-biggest economy of the 12 participating in the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations.
In order to seal that deal, Obama is grappling with two challenges.
First, he must convince Congress to hand him trade promotion authority – a power that would allow the President to put new trade deals on a fast-track to votes, with limited debate and no amendments. It’s key to closing the deal, because other countries won’t take the political risks of agreeing to something that lawmakers could later seek to change.
Meanwhile, Obama’s trade negotiators must strike a deal with Japan, which has resisted opening its agriculture and automotive industries up to more foreign competition. It’s become a sticking point that has stalled progress on the rest of the deal, which also includes countries like Canada, Mexico and Australia.
“There are many Japanese cars in America; I want to see more American cars in Japan as well,” Obama said Tuesday.
Trade is a politically sensitive issue both because of the blows new pacts can deal to specific industries and broader concerns about globalization displacing American workers, Obama conceded.
“Here’s what I’m confident about: This will end up being the most progressive trade bill in history,” he said. “It will have the kinds of labor and environmental and human rights protections that have been absent in previous agreements.”
“It’s gonna be enforceable,” Obama said. “It’s gonna open up markets that currently are not fully opened to U.S. businesses. It’s gonna be good for the U.S. economy. And because I always believe that good policy ends up being good politics, I’m confident we’re going to end up getting the votes in Congress.”
The fast-track legislation has already cleared the GOP-controlled House Ways and Means Committee and the Senate Finance Committee.
But minority Democrats, particularly in the House, have strongly opposed the legislation. Also fighting it are labor unions like the AFL-CIO, environmental organizations like Sierra Club and a host of consumer advocacy and human rights groups, including Doctors Without Borders. The humanitarian health group frets the deal will protect U.S. pharmaceutical drug-makers at the expense of poorer countries’ ability to manufacture cheaper generic versions.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Massachusetts, has led the opposition, hammering away at a provision common in trade deals that would allow corporations a legal venue to challenge whether countries’ laws and policies meet their free trade obligations. She’s called on negotiators to make public the deal’s working text, which has remained private as the details are hammered out.
The bill is on track to get votes as soon as May. Its passage is likely in the Senate, but could run into trouble in the House, where a small group of tea party Republicans who are loathe to hand Obama any more power are also opposing fast track authority.
Obama sought to quell concerns about transparency on Tuesday, noting that the fast track bill would give lawmakers a 60-day window to review the final deal before he could sign it and then at least three more months to examine it before voting up-or-down on whether to adopt the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
Both Obama and Abe, though, deflected questions about a case Obama has increasingly made domestically: that the deal is an opportunity to increase their countries’ influence on Asia-Pacific economic rules and counterbalance China, which has advocated less stringent labor and environmental guidelines.
“I know that the politics around trade can be hard in both our countries, but I know that Prime Minister Abe, like me, is deeply committed to getting this done. And I’m confident we will,” Obama said.