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If the trans-Pacific trade deal is going to happen, it’s going to happen after the election

The pact is caught between an election-wary Congress and two presidential candidates who’ve come out against it.

President Obama has pushed hard for the Trans-Pacific Partnership. His successor — whoever that may be — won’t.
REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

What does Hillary Clinton have in common with Donald Trump?

The two candidates may be dramatically different on a lot of issues, but they would do the same thing if elected: kill the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

Over this election cycle, Americans’ concern and anger over how international trade affects their livelihoods has animated the rise of Trump, and forced Clinton, once a vocal free trade advocate, to declare her opposition to the trade pact.

For supporters of the sweeping, 12-nation trade agreement — a group that includes President Obama and congressional Republicans like Rep. Erik Paulsen — that means that their time is quickly running out.

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Since Congress narrowly granted him so-called “fast-track” authority last June, Obama has the ability to send TPP to Congress for an up-or-down vote with minimal fuss. No amendments. No filibusters. All the marbles.

But congressional leaders don’t want to subject vulnerable incumbents to a controversial vote before elections in November. So if TPP is going to happen, it’s most likely going to be during the four weeks of post-election legislative business known as the lame-duck session.

The pressure is on Obama and his allies to take advantage of that narrow window to get TPP ratified, but several Minnesota lawmakers, particularly Rep. Keith Ellison, are vowing to work hard to make sure that doesn’t happen — and they believe the momentum is on their side.

Path cleared for major trade agreements

This time last year, Congress was in the midst of an intense fight over giving the president trade promotion authority, which is sometimes called “fast-track,” because it provides for expedited consideration of major international trade agreements.

Fast-track has been in effect at various points since 1974, helping Congress approve 14 trade pacts. On TPP, U.S. trade negotiators have been working for years along with countries like Malaysia, Vietnam, Canada, and Australia to craft a satisfactory agreement, which all parties agreed upon last year.

But in order for TPP to become official, it requires congressional ratification.

The text of the agreement — in the neighborhood of 6,000 pages — had not been released at this time last year, but the debate over whether or not to approve fast-track was effectively a discussion of the trade deal. Progressives’ reservations on TPP center on U.S. job loss, environmental standards, and other concerns, while Obama and Republicans argued it gives the U.S. the opportunity to write the rules for trade in Asia-Pacific, as opposed to China.

Last June, largely on the strength of Democratic opposition and a contingent of Republicans, fast-track sustained a surprising defeat on the House floor. A week later, it was approved after some procedural wrangling — by a margin of four votes — and made it to the White House for Obama’s signature.

All of Minnesota’s Democrats voted against fast-track authority, and all the Republicans voted in favor of it.

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Presidential year dynamics: bad news for TPP

In the year since fast-track was approved, Congress hasn’t taken any action on the Pacific trade pact. The text was released in full in November, and the administration is working on the finer points of its plan to implement the agreement, which it must submit to Congress.

But presidential politics have catapulted the trade discussion into the national mainstream: both Trump and Sen. Bernie Sanders have made opposition to trade pacts like TPP central themes in their campaigns, arguing that they disadvantage American workers and enrich Wall Street.

That forced Clinton, who once called TPP “the gold standard” while Secretary of State, to reverse course and come out against the agreement — ensuring that whoever occupies the White House next year will be against the trade pact.

Obama likely will not submit TPP anytime before the November elections out of an understanding with congressional leaders. Voting on the trade pact would provide unwanted baggage for certain Republicans up for re-election, particularly those in industrial states, such as Ohio Sen. Rob Portman or Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson. It is also a tough vote for conservative, business-friendly Democrats like 7th District Rep. Collin Peterson.

That leaves the lame-duck as the only viable window for TPP to sneak to Obama’s desk — after the election, and before President Clinton, or Trump, takes office.

How will it go down? Whenever he decides to, Obama can submit the implementation plan of the agreement to Congress — though he must notify them a month beforehand. Once the bill is submitted, no amendments are allowed on it, floor debate in each chamber, even the Senate, is limited to 20 hours, and a simple majority is all that’s needed to advance it to the White House.

If congressional leadership were totally behind it, TPP could make it through Congress in a matter of days, filibuster-proof and virtually unkillable — unless lawmakers decide to vote it down.

Ellison, Nolan, plan to attack hard

That’s what Rep. Keith Ellison is vowing to do. He feels confident that he, and his progressive allies, can shut TPP down — and potentially deny their president a legacy-making achievement.

Ellison told MinnPost that the momentum is on their side after an impressive stand against the White House last year. “Things have gotten worse for TPP,” he said, saying that the release of the text confirmed his and others’ suspicions of how bad agreement would be.

He acknowledged that if TPP comes up, it will likely be after the elections. “They’ve got one tight window to get it through,” he said. “From an organizational standpoint, what we’re saying is, get ready, because they’re coming right after the election. It allows us to identify the time period that we have to play very good defense.”

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Eighth District Rep. Rick Nolan has also emerged as a vocal opponent of TPP — he argues it will put the mining and metals industry in his district at a further competitive disadvantage to international competition.

“Our message to everybody,” Nolan said, “is that there should not be a vote on it in the lame duck. Let the new Congress deal with it if this Congress refuses to.”

He said that the group that opposes TPP has been successful in converting members who might be on the fence. “We’ve been gaining resonance slowly but surely, bipartisanly, and then with Bernie and Hillary and Trump all against this thing, more people have become more aware about just how disastrous these trade agreements are.”

In addition to Ellison and Nolan, Reps. Betty McCollum and Tim Walz are on record as against TPP, as is Sen. Al Franken. Though they both voted against fast-track, Peterson and Sen. Amy Klobuchar — pro-business Democrats for whom this is a tougher vote — have not come out for or against the Pacific trade agreement.

Paulsen keeps the faith

On the Republican side, Paulsen and Rep. John Kline are supportive of TPP. Rep. Tom Emmer voted for fast-track — and actively sought Republican votes for it — but he has not come out in favor of or in opposition to TPP.

Paulsen is a vocal free-trade advocate and works on the issue as a member of the Ways and Means Committee. He told MinnPost that no matter what, there will be a tough path ahead for the agreement.

“Even before the nominees were decided, there was talk this would spill into a lame duck, or maybe even into next year,” Paulsen said.

“My main worry is that with the top two candidates not talking about the positive aspects of trade, it’s going to be up to us to continue to lead that robust agenda, which the U.S. needs and the world needs for growth.”

‘There’s no putting this in the can’

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As a renewed TPP battle shapes up in Congress, both Ellison and Paulsen maintained that advocacy from key constituencies will be important in determining if TPP succeeds or fails.

“As long as small and medium-sized companies continue to engage and are active in that debate, reminding elected officials about the importance of trade, we can see those positive aspects,” Paulsen said.

Though he and allies feel that the political climate — and time — is on their side, Ellison sounded wary of complacency. “We will have to maintain our grassroots effort no matter who wins [the presidency],” he said.

Beyond the top of the ticket, it’s unclear how the results of the election might affect TPP’s chances in either chamber. If members voted the exact same as they did on fast-track, it would squeak by.

It likely won’t break down in the same way, though. And if 2016 is a 2010 or 2014-style wave election, outgoing members could be wildcard votes, open to persuasion from either side.

If a vote happens, both sides know it will probably be close. “We dare not pack it in and chalk this one up as a win,” Ellison said. “There’s no putting this in the can.”