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McConnell Comment on TPP Ends Obama’s Chance to Close Deal

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) speaks at the annual Fancy Farm Picnic in Fancy Farm, Ky., on Saturday, Aug. 6, 2016. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) speaks at the annual Fancy Farm Picnic in Fancy Farm, Ky., on Saturday, Aug. 6, 2016. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

The Senate will not vote on the Trans-Pacific Partnership this year because of “serious flaws” in the agreement, Majority LeaderMitch McConnell told a farm group, effectively ending President Barack Obama’s drive for congressional approval before he leaves office in January.

Obama has touted the 12-nation agreement as an ambitious undertaking that he hoped would be the centerpiece of his trade legacy.

In a Louisville Courier-Journal video, McConnell, R-Ky., said the next administration could renegotiate troublesome areas in the trade pact between the United States and 11 Pacific nations to win enough congressional votes to pass. The House and the Senate must each approve the trade agreement for it to take effect.

“It can be massaged, changed, worked on during the next administration,” McConnell told the Kentucky Farm Bureau Federation on Thursday. He had previously said the Senate wouldn’t consider the agreement before the election on Nov. 8. 

McConnell also made passing reference at the meeting to an anti-trade mood in the United States. “It seems like the politics of trade have become rather toxic,” he said.

The White House declined CQ’s request Friday for a response to McConnell’s comments. A spokeswoman cited statements by Press Secretary Josh Earnest from Monday about the trade agreement.

Earnest said Obama intends to make the case that without the trade agreement, the U.S. will cede influence to China, which is working on its own regional trade pact.

“He certainly will continue to be making that case until it gets done, and the president is certainly hopeful that it will get done before he leaves office,” Earnest said.

Sen. Bernie Sanders, the Vermont independent who ran a strong campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination, welcomed the McConnell comments. Sanders campaigned against TPP as a flawed agreement, a message that resonated with many of his supporters.

“I welcome Majority Leader McConnell’s announcement that he will block a vote in the Senate this year on the disastrous, job-killing Trans-Pacific Partnership,” Sanders said in a statement. “This is good news for American workers, for the environment and for the ability to protect public health.”

McConnell did not identify what he considered the agreement’s flaws, but he had warned the administration against including provisions that would not allow tobacco companies to use arbitration under the investor-state dispute settlement process in order to seek damages against countries that invoke public health concerns to limit tobacco marketing or sales. TPP includes the tobacco carve-out.

Senate Finance Chairman Orrin G. Hatch, R-Utah, also has been cool to TPP because member nations didn’t agree to 12 years of data exclusivity for pharmaceutical biologic products to protect from competition from makers of generic biosimilars.

The task of persuading TPP nations to revisit issues they considered settled will fall to either GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump, a harsh critic of TPP and trade agreements in general, or Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, who says she cannot support the trade pact as written but indicates she might revisit areas unions and others have raised concerns about.

McConnell’s comments also will test statements by officials in TPP member nations Japan, New Zealand and Singapore that reopening the trade agreement will lead to its unraveling.

On an Aug. 2 visit to Washington, Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said his country and the other 10 TPP members had made hard choices and tradeoffs in 2015 to conclude talks on the trade agreement.

“No one wants to reopen the process with no prospects of doing better, with every chance of having it fall apart,” Lee said.

Bridget Bowman, John T. Bennett and Niels Lesniewski contributed to this report.

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