The insider Pacific trade deal is a tough sell in an outsider year

President Obama at an appearance with business leaders last month at which he touted the benefits of trade. Obama will need the support of business groups to win congressional approval of a proposed Pacific trade deal.

President Obama at an appearance with business leaders last month at which he touted the benefits of trade. Obama will need the support of business groups to win congressional approval of a proposed Pacific trade deal.

(Pool / Getty Images)

In a political year distinguished by voter hunger for “outsiders,” the new Pacific trade agreement — the ultimate in insider deals — is shaping up to be a tough sell.

For presidential candidates in both parties, as well as members of Congress who may be asked to vote on the Trans-Pacific Partnership sometime next year, the deal offers a lot not to like — aggrieved constituencies range across the political spectrum — and little immediate benefit. Although business groups and some influential industries support the agreement, few bring as much passion to the debate as the opponents.

As a result, congressional approval of the pact, once seen as a foregone conclusion if negotiators could reach a deal, now appears likely to require an all-out effort from President Obama. If he falls short, a final vote could be put off until after the November 2016 election.

Opponents of the deal dominated the early reaction. On the left, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont denounced the pact within minutes of its announcement and sent out fundraising missives touting his opposition.


“Wall Street and big corporations have won again,” he declared.

On the right, many Republican members of Congress sounded lukewarm at best. Several expressed concern about provisions that would deny some key trade benefits to tobacco companies, an important industry in the home state of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.

“Serious concerns have been raised,” McConnell said. “This deal demands intense scrutiny by Congress.”

For establishment-oriented candidates, the trade agreement could prove to be a major headache. Hillary Rodham Clinton, whose husband, President Bill Clinton, won approval of the North American Free Trade Agreement with Mexico and Canada, sided with critics earlier this year and opposed a so-called “fast track” bill that guaranteed an up-or-down vote in Congress for the Pacific trade pact. But Clinton’s campaign said Monday that she did not yet have a position on the agreement itself and indicated that she wouldn’t until she had read its lengthy terms.

For decades, trade deals have generated strong political opposition. Economists generally believe they improve the standard of living overall, but those benefits are diffuse while the costs — jobs lost or plants closed — are easily visible. Trade pacts tend to win the backing of college-educated Americans, polls show, but face deep skepticism among others.

“There’s no greater disconnect between the elites of this country and average Americans than trade policy,” said Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Sherman Oaks), who opposes the deal.

Obama plans to kick off his personal sales pitch for the deal on Tuesday, touting what he says are the benefits that a deal with eleven Pacific Rim nations would bring to American workers and businesses, as well as labor and environmental protections that he has hailed as path-breaking.

“It’s an agreement that puts American workers first and will help middle-class families get ahead,” Obama said Monday when the deal was announced.

The most significant trade deal since NAFTA, the Pacific trade agreement has been a marquee item for Obama as he nears the final year of his presidency. Advisors hope it will burnish his economic record and make good on long-standing plans for a foreign policy focused more on trade with Asia than war in the Middle East.

But with organized labor, many environmental groups and others on the left strongly against the deal, most Democratic lawmakers are expected to oppose it. Republican support is already starting to slip with months to go before a ratification vote. Under the terms of the fast-track law passed in June, the full text of the deal must be made public for 90 days before Congress can begin considering the deal, so no vote will take place until sometime next year at the earliest.

In an election year, campaign politics likely will make the vote harder.

In a “60 Minutes” interview last week, Donald Trump vowed to scrap NAFTA if elected president, calling it a “disaster,” a signal that he is likely to oppose the newest deal, as well. In a message Monday afternoon on Twitter, Trump called the trade agreement a “terrible deal.”

“The incompetence of our current administration is beyond comprehension,” he wrote.

In the fight to persuade Republicans in Congress, however, the president and U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman expect strong backing from business leaders.

Kevin Madden, a Republican strategist working with an outside effort to promote the trade pact, says a position on trade reveals to voters “whether candidates favor getting something done or choosing to stand still.”

“Voters recognize that we are competing in a global economy and that America needs to lead the way or we run the risk of falling behind our biggest economic competitors,” said Madden, a top advisor to Mitt Romney’s two presidential campaigns.

“The outsider versus insider dynamic isn’t as important as demonstrating to voters that you have a plan for America’s future in that global economy,” he said.

But not all industries are equally enthusiastic. Big drug companies, for example, expressed disappointment Monday with the final terms of the agreement.

Lawmakers of both parties are also worried the deal doesn’t do enough to clamp down on alleged currency manipulation by other countries. Others said provisions to disclose the country of origin of imported goods were too weak and would allow items made in China, which is not part of the trade pact, to be stamped with labels from other countries and enjoy low tariffs.

Those who have been fighting the deal see an opening.

“The best thing about this agreement is it’s going to trigger a reaction from the American people,” said Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio), who has battled trade deals for more than 30 years in her Toledo-area district. “Enough people have been harmed that this will pivot into the presidential race,” she said.

“We shouldn’t allow this backslide to the bottom,” she added. “This agreement only pushes us down that road.”

Staff Writer Lisa Mascaro contributed to this report.

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