Pacific trade pact gets mixed reception on Capitol Hill
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WASHINGTON, Oct. 5, 2015 - Key congressional Republicans are raising concerns about the just-completed Pacific Rim trade pact, in part because the Obama administration didn't insist on protecting U.S. tobacco products from regulations in other countries.
“While the details are still emerging, unfortunately I am afraid this deal appears to fall woefully short,” said Senate Finance Chairman Orrin Hatch, R-Utah.
He didn't detail any particular objections, but his support will be critical to winning congressional approval for the agreement, which would be one of the signal economic achievement of President Obama's administration.
“In my case I hate tobacco, but I still realize what's important to get the votes, and I'm very connect about that,” Hatch told reporters. He said he also may have concerns about the agreement's treatment of intellectual property.
Also raising concerns about the deal was House Agriculture Chairman Mike Conaway, who complained last week to the administration about its stance on tobacco and pressed negotiators to protect dairy and sugar producers as well.
"While I am encouraged to hear that U.S. livestock products such as beef and pork will see significant gains in market access, it will take a coalition of many to move TPP over the coming months. At this time, I am skeptical that these concerns were sufficiently addressed but will remain open-minded, and I look forward to studying the agreement,” said Conaway, R-Texas.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who represents the tobacco-growing state of Kentucky, said that “serious concerns have been raised on a number of key issues,” but he didn't spell out what those were.
“This deal demands intense scrutiny by Congress and the legislation we passed earlier this year provides us the opportunity to give this agreement that scrutiny."
The tobacco issue also could cost the TPP deal the support of North Carolina's two Republican senators, Thom Tillis and Richard Burr, both of whom voted for the Trade Promotion Authority bill in June that set the negotiating guidelines and established the congressional process for approving the agreement.
Tillis accused the Obama administration of using the negotiations “as a laboratory for partisan politics by discriminating against specific agricultural commodities.
Agriculture interests will be critical to moving the agreement through Congress, which is why Obama's first public event to promote the new agreement was scheduled for Tuesday at the Agriculture Department, with Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack at his side.
White House press secretary Josh Earnest, announcing the event, said that “the agriculture economy benefits significantly from the terms of this agreement.”
Because the text of the accord must be public for at least 90 before it can even be signed, Congress won't debate the deal until 2016 as the presidential primaries and caucuses are taking place. But Earnest said there was “no reason” Congress shouldn't debate the agreement in 2016.
“The administration will certainly be making the case the case to Congress that this is something they should consider not just carefully, but promptly,” Earnest said.
The National Farmers Union remains the leading opponent in agriculture to the president's trade agenda and the TPP agreement.
NFU President Roger Johnson said the deal lacked “any meaningful language” to curb currency manipulation by other TPP countries. The agreement would set up an international forum for countries to discuss concerns about manipulation of exchange rates, but critics wanted enforceable provisions.
Despite the reservations being expressed on Capitol Hill, the agreement "will be backed by a “broad swath of the private sector that's pretty enthusiastic” about the deal, said Nick Giordano, the vice president and counsel for global government affairs at the National Pork Producers Council.
“What every member of Congress is going to have to do is stand back and say, ‘Are we better off with TPP than without?'” he said.
Senate Agriculture Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., said he was waiting to hear what commodity groups thought of the deal. “They've kept a close lid on this,” he said.
He said the tobacco issue was a concern to senators beyond those from the few tobacco-growing states. “To the people concerned it's a big deal. It's putting public health in a trade deal. And the precedent of doing that has other people worried. You have an agenda being inserted here in the trade deal.”