Barely a month ago, Capitol Hill was abuzz with talk of trade policy. Democrats were pushing to deprive their own president of the ability to bring international trade deals to Congress for expedited review, and Republicans were fighting an internecine war between those who want to see major trade deals get done and those who resist giving President Obama any additional authority whatsoever.
In the end, after a complicated and risky legislative gambit in the House and some arcane maneuvering in the Senate, the president was finally granted so-called Trade Promotion Authority. Now he needs a trade deal to bring before Congress. Unless he gets it soon, the politics of getting an agreement passed could become much more complicated.
The deal in question is the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a 12-nation trade agreement spanning countries from Australia to Canada and Japan to Chile. Negotiators are meeting in Hawaii this week in hopes of finalizing the massive deal, which would eliminate tariffs, change international copyright laws and in many other ways touch everything from t-shirts to cancer medications.
The deal is extremely unpopular among the Democratic base in particular, because lowering trade barriers to many Asian countries, where labor is cheap and regulation is spotty, is seen as fundamentally bad for American workers.
Hillary Clinton, the Democratic frontrunner in the presidential primary, advocated for the deal as President Obama’s Secretary of State. But she has been notably cool to it since becoming an official presidential candidate. The other Democrats in the race, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, have made their opposition to the deal well known.
The problem for Obama is that, while he wants this deal to get done, he also wants to hand the keys to the White house over to another Democrat in 2017. Not forcing them to take a position on a controversial issue in the midst of primaries could be helpful in that regard.
According to Jeffrey A. Bader and David Dollar, both senior fellows at the Brookings Institution’s John L. Thornton China Center, that means the closer the finalization of the trade deal inches toward the beginning of next year’s primary season, the dicier things get.
“The political imperative is to hold the vote before the Feb. 1 Iowa caucus, so that TPP does not become an issue in the presidential campaign,” they write. “Free trade agreements are unpopular with voters, especially in the Democratic Party. So passage could become complicated if there are delays.”
This week’s negotiations may be the last opportunity to get TPP done in time to avoid having the discussion spilling into the election season. That’s because there are multiple delays built into the process, giving Congress the ability to examine the deal after the president declares his intention to sign it, and then allowing for an up-or-down vote after he signs it.
By Bader and Dollar’s calculations, a best-case scenario for the administration requires negotiators to strike a final deal this week, potentially allowing for Obama to sign the agreement at the meeting of heads of state of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation organization in November.
That timeline would require Congress to give the deal an up or down vote by mid-February, but considering that both House and Senate leadership support TPP, they could arrange to act sooner, before the Iowa caucus takes place on Feb. 1.
Keeping discussion of TPP as far away from the rough and tumble of the primaries is key to leaders in Congress and in the White House, but at the moment, they are powerless to act until a deal is struck in Hawaii.
Bader and Dollar say that TPP would better position the U.S. to participate in Pacific markets and prevent China from growing ever more powerful in the region. The stakes, they write, are high — as is the urgency to get something done before presidential politics makes passage more difficult.