Obama still thinks Pacific trade deal can pass Congress

By Lisa Mascaro, Tribune Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama expressed renewed optimism that his trade pact with Pacific Rim nations would still be approved by Congress, despite widespread political opposition that has left the 12-nation deal all but dead.

Both Democrats and Republicans have soured on the Trans-Pacific Partnership as overseas trade has emerged as a campaign scapegoat for all that remains wrong in the shifting U.S. economy. Hopes for passage by the end of Obama’s term have largely faded.

“Look, the politics of trade have always been complicated,” Obama said in an interview with CNN that was recorded before his trip to China and Asia.

Obama noted what he called a “vocal” segment of the Democratic Party, a reference to the popularity of Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., the influence of labor union opposition to the deal, and the emergence of “populist anti-trade sentiment” among some Republicans led by Donald Trump.

But the administration appears unwilling to walk away from the years-long negotiations with Asian and the other countries without a final push for the Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP.

In addition to potential economic benefits from the deal, Obama sees it as a central element of the U.S. effort to counter China’s growing influence in east Asia and the Pacific region.

“The Trans-Pacific Partnership is a historic agreement, cobbled together among a very diverse set of countries, and the basic argument is simple: This is going to be the world’s largest market. And if we’re not setting the rules out there, somebody else is,” Obama said. “I remain confident that we can get TPP passed.”

The trade agreement was once viewed as a likely capstone to Obama’s second term, a rare chance to find common ground between the two parties, but the election year changed that.

Even though Congress returns to work this week after its long summer recess, any action in the House or Senate on trade remains nowhere near the top of the agenda. Most lawmakers would prefer to avoid the issue before the November election.

Congress is expected to conduct a post-election lame-duck session, and those final weeks often provide an opportunity for last-ditch legislative maneuvers.

So many issues have been deferred to this year’s lame-duck session that a coalition of conservative groups, particularly those aligned with the billionaire Koch brothers, are trying to stop it altogether.

Obama is on his final Asia trip this week where he intends to reassure global leaders at the Group of 20 summit in Laos that the U.S. is not backing away from its commitment to the continent.

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