WASHINGTON -- As part of his visit to Asia this week, Vice President Joe Biden is driving home a message: After three years of talks, it’s time to wrap up the largest trade deal in U.S. history.
U.S. negotiators hope to do just that as they head to Singapore to begin more talks on Saturday, seeking to finalize the Trans-Pacific Partnership, known as the TPP, a pact with 11 other countries that would set new trade rules in the Pacific Rim.
Even if that happens, Democratic members of Congress on Thursday made clear that President Barack Obama and his team still will have to win their votes.
And many are increasingly skeptical over the secretly negotiated deal, saying it could send more American jobs overseas and hurt both U.S. workers and the environment.
“Let’s be clear: It is Congress that has the final say on whether a trade deal is approved. . . . In other words, any deal announced by trade ministers as final next week is far from it,” Democratic Rep. Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut told reporters in a conference call.
Critics have been urging negotiators to make their work public, with no luck. And that’s a sore spot for many.
California Democratic Rep. George Miller said that many members of Congress fear they’ll be left out and serve as “a potted plant in this process,” asked to vote on a deal containing details that have been hidden from even them.
“People are very worried that they’re going to be in a take-it-or-leave-it position on an agreement that may have very bad provisions that affect their district, their state or – they believe – their country,” Miller said.
Democratic Rep. Steve Israel of New York said Congress must have a “robust role” in the oversight of any trade deal. And he said that means Congress must be involved on the front end of negotiations, not merely asked to approve a pact once it’s been negotiated.
“A good deal is more important than a final deal,” Israel said. “And the only deal that I can support is one that has verifiable standards that Congress can oversee and monitor.”
While Obama faces resistance from many members of his own party, some Republicans are eager to back him.
Republican Rep. Dave Reichert, one of four House members who created the new Friends of the Trans-Pacific Partnership Caucus, said earlier that the deal would be a big benefit to his home state of Washington.
“In fact, trade with TPP countries already supports hundreds of thousands of jobs in my home state,” he said.
The Obama administration has made the trade pact a top priority for the president’s second term, confident that it will go a long way toward increasing U.S. exports and creating new jobs at the same time.
After meeting in Salt Lake City last month, negotiators from the 12 countries – the U.S., Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore and Vietnam – now plan to hold talks in Singapore from Saturday through Tuesday.
In a briefing Tuesday in Tokyo, a senior official with the Obama administration said Biden had met with U.S. negotiators and was not attempting to work out details, “but he is here to drive a message at the political level about the importance of getting this thing done and getting it done right in a way that works for U.S. businesses and workers.”
The official, who cannot be identified as a condition of the briefing, said the trade pact would be “a high-standard trade agreement” that would set rules for countries that cover 40 percent of the world’s gross domestic product, an indicator that measures the market value of all goods and services.
The administration will have many questions to answer if it can sign a deal in Singapore and deliver it to Congress.
Miller said many of the TPP countries “are much more hostile to labor than even Colombia,” where human rights abuses complicated passage of an earlier trade deal.
And Democratic Rep. Earl Blumenauer of Oregon said he wants to make sure that a trade pact prevents wildlife trafficking and illegal logging, among other things.
“We’ve got an obligation for the United States to try and provide leadership and pressure in an aggressive way, and there’s no area that’s more important than in the environment,” he said.