Obama seeks backing from both parties for Pacific Rim trade deal
President Obama promised new markets for American beef, bacon and auto parts as he kicked off the sales campaign Tuesday for his new Pacific Rim trade deal, pledging to keep at it until he wins support from across the political spectrum.
Touting the benefits for U.S. ranchers, farmers and manufacturers, Obama launched the pitch alongside Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, a former governor of Iowa who will try to help the president reach out to wary lawmakers.
“We’re going to be able to sell more products, more services, American agriculture, American manufacturing,” Obama told business leaders gathered at the Department of Agriculture to hear the selling points.
“We’re going to be able to get those to markets,” Obama pledged, “and American companies that produce here in the United States are not going to be disadvantaged relative to these markets.”
Convincing lawmakers, of course, is much easier said than done as Obama tries to pass the most significant trade deal since the North American Free Trade Agreement took effect in 1994.
Like NAFTA, the deal with 11 other nations that border the Pacific faces fierce opposition from unions, many environmental groups and others on the left — and, therefore, from many of Obama’s fellow Democrats.
Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton, campaigning in Vilsack’s home state on Tuesday, sidestepped the question of whether she would support the agreement, saying only that she intended to “make a timely decision.”
Even trade-friendly Republicans are taking a wary view of the deal, especially given the skepticism arising from the GOP presidential field. Republican candidates are skeptical of any Obama economic initiative, and lawmakers in turn are hesitating to give their stamp of approval. Donald Trump, the leading candidate in GOP polls, strongly denounced the agreement Monday.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said Tuesday that there “are a number of troubling parts of it that we’re all taking a look at.”
Still, advisors to Obama think he can put together a winning coalition despite the intensely political year in which he is trying to pass what his aides tout as the crowning piece of his economic agenda. The White House is hoping that CEOs and other executives will see the agreement as a potential boon for their businesses and persuade members of Congress to go along.
“Even an organization like the Chamber of Commerce — with whom the president has significant political disagreements — even they agree that this kind of agreement would be in the best interests of American businesses, American workers and the broader American economy,” White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said.
But while Obama is the deal’s most prominent salesperson, he also may be the biggest drag on it among the Republican lawmakers whose votes the agreement will need in Congress.
“The opposition to the Pacific Rim deal is all about Obama,” said Alex Castellanos, a Republican strategist who has worked for candidates including George W. Bush and Mitt Romney. “The nativists in both parties are disposed to sink the deal — Democrats because they support their unions more than their president, and Republicans because they oppose their president more than they support free trade and economic growth.”
Although Republicans might be skeptical now, Castellanos predicts some of them will come around once they examine the details.
“That still leaves a strange but effective coalition of pro-Obama Democrats and free-trade Republicans who almost never show up at the same cocktail party,” Castellanos said.
Rep. Ron Kind of Wisconsin, who leads a group of Democrats who have largely backed the president’s trade push, said the White House outreach to him and other members of the caucus has already begun, with a briefing likely as soon as this week on Capitol Hill with U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman.
Obama’s push on behalf of a related trade bill this spring was among the most aggressive the White House has launched, involving the kind of personal engagement that Democrats and Republicans had said was lacking for past legislative priorities.
“That’s got to continue now,” Kind said. “Members are going to be thirsty for knowledge to figure all this out, and I think if members keep an open mind, there are going to be many areas where they are pleasantly pleased.”
Although only 28 House Democrats supported the related measure, some supporters think more Democrats might be receptive to the final agreement.
That bill, which passed in June, says the full text of the final deal must be made public for 90 days before Congress can begin considering it. The administration is at least a month from releasing the text, Vilsack said, because lawyers are “scrubbing” it to ensure it represents the accord reached among negotiators in Atlanta.
Even before the details are available, though, he said he’d be urging lawmakers from agricultural states to take a close look.
“Agriculture is a winner every time,” he said.
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