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Trade Deal Announcement Highlights Tobacco Problem (Video) (Updated)

(Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
Hatch is expressing concerns about the TPP agreement. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Updated 5:26 p.m. | Before free trade supporters get too exuberant about the outcome of the Trans-Pacific Partnership talks, they might want to listen to the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee.

Utah Republican Orrin G. Hatch told CQ Roll Call Monday he is “leaning against” supporting the deal, particularly over the exclusion of tobacco from certain protections.

“Although I don’t support tobacco at all, I still think it was essential,” Hatch said. “It’ll cost us some votes. And every vote is essential. And there are other things I am very concerned about. I’ve committed to read the bill, and I will read it, but right now I’m leaning against it.”

In an earlier statement, he said: “The Trans-Pacific Partnership is a once in a lifetime opportunity and the United States should not settle for a mediocre deal that fails to set high-standard trade rules in the Asia-Pacific region for years to come.”

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has highlighted his commitment to trade, but added that “serious concerns have been raised on a number of key issues.” That plus the less-than-ringing endorsement from Hatch (who has long expressed concern about setting the precedent that a trade deal can carve out an individual product — tobacco, in this case) should be cause for caution as Congress begins to review the agreement announced Monday at ministerial meetings in Atlanta.

“This deal demands intense scrutiny by Congress and the legislation we passed earlier this year provides us the opportunity to give this agreement that scrutiny,” McConnell said in a statement. “In the months ahead, the Senate will review this agreement to determine if it meets the high standards Congress and the American people have demanded.”

Negotiators Announce Trans-Pacific Trade Deal

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The earlier legislation giving trade deals fast-track status seemed like a giant success at the time. It was a big win for President Barack Obama, who was looking at the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership as a landmark accomplishment of his presidency. And it was a big win for pro-trade Republicans.

But what a difference a few months makes. While there may be a number of key issues, one that has popped up consistently over the summer is that the TPP agreement will not provide certain protections for tobacco companies, drawing cheers from anti-smoking advocates and jeers from tobacco supporters.

“In their work to craft an agreement that would substantially benefit their countries economically, negotiators also appear to have taken an historic step to prohibit tobacco companies from using the agreement to attack laws intended to reduce disease and death caused by tobacco use,” Chris Hansen, president of the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network, said in a statement. “The international community cannot allow the efforts of countries to protect their populations from the harms of tobacco use to become ensnared in trade-related legal challenges brought by the tobacco industry.”

Finance Committee ranking Democrat Ron Wyden of Oregon lauded the TPP agreement, in part saying it “will ensure that countries that are part of it can regulate tobacco without fearing intimidation and litigation by Big Tobacco.”

“TPP will not discriminate against any agricultural commodity nor will it exclude tobacco. On the contrary, TPP will provide protections to ensure that governments can implement tobacco control measures, while guaranteeing that tobacco has the same legal status as any other product,” a U.S. official told CQ Roll Call last week.

But Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., said he would work to kill the agreement over those provisions.

“Breaking the long-standing tradition of not picking winners and losers in trade agreements, the Obama Administration has decided to use the TPP as a laboratory for partisan politics by discriminating against specific agricultural commodities,” Tillis said in a statement. “This sets a dangerous precedent for future trade agreements, and I will not only vote against the TPP, but actively work to help defeat its ratification in the Senate.”

Tobacco is a significant cash crop in several states, including in McConnell’s Kentucky.

Over the summer, McConnell and North Carolina’s Senate delegation repeatedly warned against a tobacco carve-out. As recently as last week, North Carolina’s Republican senators, Richard M. Burr and Tillis, again fired warning shots.

Tillis told CQ Roll Call in an interview last week he thought opponents could muster the votes needed to thwart the agreement over any tobacco carve-out.

“I think if Sen. Rubio had been in [attendance], he probably would have voted for it, so there were 61 votes for TPA. I think there are easily more than a dozen votes that could go the other way on TPP, if they try to force this precedent,” Tillis said.

Correction 6:20 p.m.

An earlier version of this post misstated when Hatch spoke to Roll Call. It was Monday.

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