The Obama administration failed to meet its self-imposed deadline of Dec. 31 for completing a major new initiative that would affect a vast swath of the economy.
Sound familiar? This time it’s not Obamacare that is falling short of the administration’s projections and timetables, but the far-reaching free-trade deal called the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), the centerpiece of President Obama’s plan for “rebalancing” U.S. policies toward Asia.
Mr. Obama wanted to complete the huge trade pact by the end of 2013. But he has been thwarted by gridlock in Washington, by opposition in his own party and by complex negotiations among the 12 Pacific Rim nations in East Asia and the Americas on topics such as intellectual property rights and agricultural tariffs.
With Obamacare’s troubles and budget battles receiving most of the attention, the low-profile U.S.-led TPP talks have largely escaped the public’s notice. But in addition to opening new markets to international trade, the proposed agreement would impose new rules on environmental protection and workers’ rights on 40 percent of the world’s economy, including Japan, Canada, Mexico, Chile, Australia, the Philippines and Vietnam.
China, notably, is not part of the talks.
“This will be the largest free-trade agreement in U.S. history,” said Anthony Kim, a specialist on trade at the conservative Heritage Foundation. The nonprofit Peterson Institute estimates that the U.S. economy would grow by $78 billion per year because of new trade opportunities opened up by the accord, particularly, American negotiators hope, if Asian agriculture trade barriers are lowered in the final deal.
U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman emerged from the latest round of talks in Singapore in mid-December proclaiming “momentum” for reaching a deal. The ministers from the participating countries said they had agreed on “landing zones” — areas of potential cooperation — but they did not indicate that a formal agreement is imminent.
“The Singapore meeting showed that there’s still important differences in several key areas of negotiations,” said Mireya Solis, chair of Japan Studies at the center-left Brookings Institution think tank. “It’s not clear yet how the compromises will be reached.”
Mr. Kim said there’s no indication that the administration has recovered from the missed opportunity in October when Mr. Obama canceled a trip to an economic summit in Bali to deal with the budget battle with congressional Republicans and the federal government shutdown. The TPP was on the agenda at the summit.
“I’m losing my optimism,” he said. “We’re losing time, we’re losing momentum.”
White House press secretary Jay Carney said TPP “remains a top priority of the president because of the positive economic benefits that come from it.” A week before leaving for his Christmas vacation in Hawaii, Mr. Obama held a meeting on the status of the Asia trade talks with Cabinet members and other top advisers at the White House.
One of the topics at that meeting was Mr. Obama’s desire to obtain “fast-track” trade promotion authority (TPA) from Congress, where many Democrats and some Republicans oppose such a move. The fast-track authority expired in 2007. Under fast-track authority, lawmakers cannot amend or filibuster trade deals; they can only vote to approve or reject them.
In November, 151 House Democrats sent a letter to Mr. Obama opposing TPA. Rep. Rosa DeLauro, Connecticut Democrat, said they are concerned about the loss of more than 5 million U.S. manufacturing jobs since the North American Free Trade Agreement was signed almost two decades ago. Outside liberal groups long skeptical of free-trade agreements and their impact on domestic workers are also mobilizing against the TPP.
They were joined by unlikely allies — 23 House Republicans, including several lawmakers affiliated with the tea party who oppose the expansion of presidential power. The GOP lawmakers told Mr. Obama in a letter that the Constitution gives Congress exclusive authority over trade.
With so many lawmakers in his own party opposing the measure as the pivotal mid-term elections approach, some say Mr. Obama has not been leading on the TPA issue.
“TPA should come from the president’s leadership,” Mr. Kim said. “He has to say, ‘I need it for our economy.’ But he hasn’t done that. … [Mr. Obama] has to shore up support from his base of labor unions. So it’s very hard for him to be proactive and vocal about free trade.”
Mr. Obama is scheduled to travel to Asia in April, and administration officials are still hopeful that the free-trade deal can be reached in time for his trip.
“That would be an ideal time to wrap something up,” said Ms. Solis.