By Takeshi Kawanami in Washington
U.S. President Barack Obama renewed his commitment to gaining congressional approval for the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade pact at a press conference on August 2, stressing that “the true benefits [of the TPP] will become evident after the presidential election.” Though he seeks to submit a bill to Congress after the election, the Democrats are not all united on the passage of TPP due to strong opposition from the labor unions that support the ruling party. The two candidates for presidency are also opposed to the 12-nation trade agreement, painting a grim picture for ratification by the end of the year.
Obama wants to leave a legacy by passing the TPP. He envisages submitting the pact for deliberations in Congress for passage during the “lame duck” congressional session from right after the presidential election to when he will official bow out in January 2017. But opposition lingers among not only Republicans but also Democrats.
In the U.S., one third of seats in the Senate and all seats in the House will be up for election when the presidential race is held. “Whether they support the TPP or not will be tested during the election,” said a senior executive from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. The United Auto Workers and other unions have been fiercely lobbying against the TPP by saying that “many jobs have been lost due to free trade pacts” and putting pressure on Democrats. Meanwhile, the pharmaceutical industry, which demands a longer protection period for new drug data, has been pressuring Republicans to renegotiate the trade deal. Even if the TPP bill is submitting to Congress after the election, “the prospects are grim for gaining approval from a majority,” according to a U.S. government official.
The leadership of the Republican Party, which controls Congress, openly says that “the TPP bill will not be put to a vote if the chances of winning approval from a majority are slim.” The lame duck session will be short and it is also necessary to deliberate on budgets. “We may simply run out of time,” said a U.S. official familiar with the matter.
During the Democratic National Convention, Hillary Clinton, the Democratic presidential nominee, did not directly refer to the TPP out of consideration for Obama’s legacy-making efforts to pass the TPP by the end of the year. But her Republican rival, Donald Trump, remains assertive about the TPP, denouncing it as “the worst trade agreement.” Such “battleground states” as Ohio and Pennsylvania are home to steelmakers and many other troubled industries. “Opposition to free trade can be translated into votes,” said a Japanese government official. If the TPP fails to win congressional approval under the Obama administration, it will become impossible to chart a future path to ratification.
Obama warns that “if the U.S. leaves the TPP, the rulemaking will be left in the hands of China.” Whether he can convince anti-TPP lawmakers or not holds the key to TPP ratification. (Abridged)