- The Washington Times - Monday, February 9, 2015

The trade agreement that is the linchpin of President Obama’s Asia policy is in jeopardy of breaking apart because of a lack of trust on Capitol Hill on both sides of the partisan aisle, with opposition mounting from tea party Republicans and rank-and-file Democrats who don’t have faith in the president’s ability to negotiate a good deal.

The troubles in Congress have emerged as the Obama administration is nearing completion of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a 12-nation deal with Pacific Rim countries including Japan, Singapore and Australia that has been in the works since 2005, and which Mr. Obama has made a top priority.

Australian Trade Minister Andrew Robb said last week that a breakthrough in the talks is imminent and that TPP could be finalized by mid-March.

Acknowledging concerns among negotiators about getting the U.S. Congress to ratify the deal, Mr. Robb told Australia’s ABC Rural that he was banking on Republicans to get the job done.

“The Congress is dominated by Republicans now, and, in fact, the Republicans are more likely to vote for this sort of agreement,” he said.

Indeed, Mr. Obama and Republican leaders, who remain staunch supporters of free trade regardless of who’s in the White House, touted trade as one of their best chances for bipartisan cooperation in the divided government.

But with opposition swelling on both sides of the aisle, the Republican leaders — Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and House Speaker John A. Boehner of Ohio — are left with an increasingly narrow margin in getting enough votes to pass the legislation.

Mr. Obama is pushing Congress to grant him fast-track trade authority, which would allow him to independently negotiate trade deals and then bring them to Congress for an up-or-down vote without amendments or filibuster.

Under fast-track, or trade promotion authority, Congress could approve the deal by a majority vote instead of the two-thirds majority the Constitution requires to ratify trade pacts.

The fast-track power, which usually would have been granted at the start of the negotiating process, would include specific criteria set by Congress to guide the administration at the bargaining table. For TPP, however, the deal is nearly finished, and members of Congress are being asked to trust the White House that the terms will satisfy them.

‘Shock waves’

Supporters of fast-track authority argue that other countries won’t negotiate trade deals with the U.S. if the terms can change at the whim of Congress’ 535 members.

Details of the TPP framework remain cloaked in secrecy. Some lawmakers have been allowed to view parts of the draft agreement, but they can’t be accompanied by staff, take notes or make copies of the documents.

The secrecy has helped fueled suspicions.

Tea party lawmakers have a long history of mistrust of Mr. Obama, having accused him of lying about Obamacare, breaking the law to grant deportation amnesty to illegal immigrants, abusing executive power in other areas and getting duped by Iran in nuclear talks. They could have been expected to balk at the president’s request for more power to fast-track the trade deal through Congress.

The profound suspicion of Mr. Obama, however, has spread through the ranks and has some solidly free trade Republicans rethinking their positions for this deal.

“This is sending shock waves through Republican offices,” said Richard Manning, president of Americans for Limited Government, who joined with six other tea party and conservative groups to sign a letter to pressure lawmakers against the deal. “It ultimately comes down to whether or not you trust President Obama.”

Rep. Dan J. Benishek, a Michigan Republican who was backed in the last election by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce for his pro-business stances, said he fears the deal won’t force open Japanese markets to U.S. autos.

“We want a fair deal,” said Mr. Benishek.

A massive lobbying campaign is underway to shore up Republican support.

The Trade Benefits America Coalition, a group of 200 businesses pushing for fast-track authority for TPP, has lobbyists blanketing Capitol Hill. The coalition is led by groups such as the U.S. Chamber, Business Roundtable, American Farm Bureau and the National Association of Manufacturers, with members ranging from Coca-Cola to DuPont to Goldman Sachs, Sony and Volvo.

Democratic opposition

Meanwhile, resistance from Democrats has proved broad and deep. The party’s moderates, liberals and members of congressional leadership have raised doubts about the administration’s negotiating skills and warned of a lopsided deal that will further erode the U.S. manufacturing industry and ship more American jobs overseas.

They have formed a coalition with labor unions, environmentalists, teacher unions and other liberal groups to rally opposition.

“The administration continues to pursue the same failed model of the past 25 years,” Rep. Rosa L. DeLauro of Connecticut, a member of the House Democratic leadership team who is spearheading opposition to the trade deal, said in a conference call with reporters last week.

The call was organized to highlight annual trade data from the Census Bureau that they said underscores how misguided Mr. Obama’s trade policies have been.

The report showed that U.S. exports increased last year, but imports rose faster. The trade deficit in 2014 jumped $28.7 billion, or 6 percent, to $505 billion. Exports grew by $65.2 billion, or 2.9 percent, to $2.3 trillion, according to the Census data.

The Democrats noted that trade deficits spiked with countries where the U.S. has free trade agreements in place.

The trade deficit with South Korea increased $25 billion last year, a 20 percent increase from before the 2010 implementation of the Korea Free Trade Agreement.

The U.S. also had a $54 billion trade deficit with free trade partner Mexico and $34 billion with Canada. The trade deficit with China — which the U.S. grants most-favored nation trade status — was $343 billion.

“We’re seeing a disinvestment here in the United States,” said Rep. Tim Ryan, Ohio Democrat. “These are numbers here that we have to bring to the [House] Ways and Means Committee, bring to the United States Congress and the Senate and put before President Obama and say, ‘This is not working for the American people, and it’s time for us to take a stand.’”

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