Trans-Pacific Partnership in the Balance
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Trans-Pacific Partnership in the Balance

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Asserting that the U.S. “cannot afford to stand on the sidelines of trade,” U.S. Vice President Joe Biden penned an op-ed in the Financial Times on Thursday laying out the economic and strategic case for the Obama Administration’s current trade agenda. His comments are part of a larger effort happening in public and behind the scenes as the Administration pushes for the conclusion of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) in the face of opposition from its own party.

Following Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s public denial of the Obama Administration’s request for Trade Promotion Authority (TPA) and the departure of the bill’s primary Democratic sponsor, then-Senator Max Baucus (the new U.S. Ambassador to China), it looked like domestic political considerations had postponed the trade agenda indefinitely. Trade agreements are an unpopular issue for much of the Democratic base and, with the 2014 elections already shaping up as a tough cycle for Democrats in the Senate, many assumed the Majority Leader was seeking to prevent a potentially divisive vote until at least after Election Day.

In spite of this, U.S. Trade Representative Mike Froman has continued to meet with key partners in Congress and outside advocacy groups while maintaining a full schedule of meetings with TPP partner nations, some of whom might be tempted to use the current U.S. domestic disagreements as an excuse to drag their heels on outstanding issues.

In mid-February, Froman met with Japan’s Minister of State for Economic and Fiscal Policy to address the “differences between the United States and Japan on agriculture and other market access and rules issues.” The current impasse between Washington and Tokyo stems from a lack of market access for U.S. automobiles and several agriculture products that Japan deems “sensitive.” While both parties expressed optimism at the conclusion of these meetings, it is unlikely that the Abe government will make any politically unpopular concessions without a guarantee from the U.S. that the TPP will see a vote in Congress before the election cycle effectively halts Congress’s legislative agenda later this year.

Froman followed up these talks with a speech at the left-leaning Center for American Progress three days later that framed the trade agenda as a pro-exports effort to ensure labor and environmental standards. Unions and environmental groups, which have otherwise largely supported Obama Administration initiatives, have criticized the Trade Representative’s negotiations over concerns that the TPP will accelerate the “offshoring” of U.S. manufacturing jobs while providing no new international environmental protections.

His comments, which also touched on the need for TPA and announced the creation of a new “Public Interest Trade Advisory Committee,” were intended to allay fears among members of the Administration’s own party regarding the pending free trade agreements. While acknowledging that “Advances in technology and automation, combined with the continued pace of globalization, have increased pressure on wages and the sense that there are fewer opportunities for working Americans,” he went on to contend that “trade, done right, is part of the solution, not part of the problem.”

This push continued with a late-February trip to Singapore for the latest round of negotiations between the Ministers and Heads of Delegation for all TPP countries. Though no details were released regarding the specifics of what was accomplished or what issues remain, the leaders expressed commitment to the process and highlighted agreement “on the majority of the landing zones.”

Froman will conclude this whirlwind two weeks by meeting with Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA) tomorrow, a key moderate Democrat in the Senate whose support for Trade Promotion Authority will be instrumental to its passage once a vote does come up. This outreach is part of a broader effort by the Office of the United States Trade Representative to educate Members of Congress and their staff on the status of the negotiations and the role of Congress in the process that has seen the USTR participate in more than 1,150 meetings and consultations to date.

While the timeline for a vote on TPA remains unclear, the recent public moves by Biden and Froman indicate that the Administration has not given up on pressing for a timely conclusion to the TPP and is in fact probably pushing the agenda more than certain corners of its party would like. Whether this initiative will be effective remains to be seen. However, the Administration’s good faith effort ensures that prospective partner nations in the TPP share in this sense of urgency and continue work to identify outstanding “landing zones” as quickly as possible. Though a follow-up to the February’s Singapore round was not announced, Obama’s trip to Asia in April is widely seen as the next significant deadline for the TPP.

John VerWey is a Program Assistant at the American Enterprise Institute.

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