When the United States concludes an international trade agreement, business groups that support free trade are often champing at the bit to voice their support for the deal and push lawmakers to pass it as soon as possible. But that was not quite the case for the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the largest deal the U.S. has ever negotiated.
Instead, organizations such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Business Roundtable and National Association of Manufacturers waited until this week to announce their endorsements of the deal, which the U.S. and 11 other countries concluded in early October. Their statements of support, while positive, still called for the Obama administration to address their complaints about parts of the deal they find unsatisfactory.
“No trade agreement is perfect, and the TPP is no exception,” Chamber President and Chief Executive Officer Thomas Donohue said in a statement Wednesday. “However, the benefits of a trade agreement lie in how it is interpreted, implemented, and enforced. With that in mind, we’re rolling up our sleeves to work with the administration, Congress and our TPP partners to ensure the agreement is implemented in a way that maximizes its commercial benefits, including market access, rules, and intellectual property protections.”
Donohue’s call for working with lawmakers and the administration to improve TPP underscores how complaints from some sectors have influenced debate surrounding the trade pact. The U.S. pharmaceutical industry pushed for TPP to have longer marketing-monopoly periods for biologic medicines, while the tobacco industry has criticized a provision which allows TPP countries to implement anti-smoking measures.
National Foreign Trade Council President Bill Reinsch said the focus of business groups will now shift to lobbying lawmakers to back the deal or find out ways to improve the controversial provisions to win their vote. NFTC, a Washington-based group representing large U.S. corporations, backed the deal in December.
In an interview, Reinsch said now that business groups are all on board, “they’ll all mobilize.”
“And what that will do, I believe, is add to the depth and breadth of support for the agreement,” he added. “What the message of the associations coming out of this really means is that the battle is beginning, and people are beginning to ramp up.”
Reinsch predicted lobbying will continue for several months until March or April, when he said people will likely begin taking a whip count in both the House and Senate.
But the support of groups like the Chamber hasn’t stopped affected industries, or the lawmakers whose constituencies include brand-name pharmaceutical companies or tobacco growers, from voicing their skepticism about TPP.
The most important swing vote in the Senate currently is Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who said last month he doesn’t believe TPP should come to a vote in the Senate before November’s presidential election. McConnell’s home state, Kentucky, is a major producer of tobacco, and the majority leader has pointed to the tobacco language as one of his biggest complaints about TPP while still refusing to say how he will vote on the deal as a whole. Despite the support from business groups, McConnell spokesman Don Stewart said Wednesday the Republican leader hasn’t changed his stance.
In the House, Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) has left the door slightly more open than McConnell when it comes to timing. Last month he said “we want to move” in 2016, and he has not ruled out a vote before the November elections.
House Ways & Means Committee Chairman Kevin Brady (R-Tex.) said in an interview Wednesday TPP supporters will now focus on persuading the administration to change some of the more controversial aspects of the agreement.
“The tone the business community has set is exactly right, which is to highlight the economic importance of this agreement and to urge the administration to work with our members to address their concerns,” Brady said. “They recognize how important this agreement is but there is a lot of work left to be done.”
Brady also said trade will be discussed when House Republicans hold their annual legislative retreat in Baltimore next week.
If the administration wants Congress to approve TPP before Obama leaves office, it will likely have to submit what’s known as an “implementing bill” after the International Trade Commission files its report to Congress on the economic effects of the agreement, which is expected on May 18. Reinsch said members of Congress are unlikely to consider TPP in earnest until after ITC’s report is out, but the clock will start ticking for Congress to vote on the implementing legislation as soon as it is submitted.
The fast-track trade bill Congress passed last year requires the House to vote on the bill 60 days after it is submitted, Reinsch said. The House will have 59 legislative days and the Senate will have 77 between the ITC report’s deadline and the end of the year, he added. Even if McConnell opts to vote against TPP, Reinsch noted, he still could allow the bill to come to the floor by letting the fast-track deadline force a vote.
But with an election on the horizon and a packed legislative calendar for 2016, lawmakers are unlikely to focus closely on TPP until the schedule requires it.
“I’m about 5,000 pages away from finishing reading through the documents, and I think most of us are the same way,” Rep. Tim Huelskamp (R-Kan.) said Wednesday.