WASHINGTON — Trade reform activists worried about Congress passing a massive trade deal in the lame-duck session after the elections can probably relax — it’s the next president they have to concern themselves with, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) suggested Thursday.
President Barack Obama’s major piece of unfinished business in the trade realm is getting the Trans-Pacific Partnership approved. Both House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and McConnell have said they don’t think there’s enough votes to pass the deal in the current political environment, even though Congress passed so-called fast-track authority last year to expedite trade deals.
While McConnell did not flatly reject a lame-duck trade deal, he suggested that rather than bring up a measure that fails, free-traders would be better off playing the long game, and pushing the next White House.
“If you’re interested in America still being in the trading business in the future, in what way is it advantageous to have a trade agreement go down?” McConnell told reporters on Capitol Hill.
Despite the current campaigns’ stated opposition to TPP, McConnell may have reason to be hopeful. Hillary Clinton helped negotiate the TPP while she was secretary of state, but has opposed it in the campaign, saying she does not like the end result. Presumably she could reopen negotiations and change portions if she is president. Donald Trump has adamantly opposed trade deals, but has repeatedly said he’d negotiate better ones.
And McConnell pointed out that Congress has already set the stage for easier passage of deals by approving fast track — formally known as trade promotion authority.
“TPA, trade promotion authority, which was passed almost entirely with Republicans and President Obama, is still there in the next Congress,” McConnell said. “In other words, the mechanism by which you can submit an agreement and get a vote is still in place. And TPP is still out there.”
That leaves all of the important elements in place for the next president to embrace, regardless of what he or she says on the campaign trail.
“I would hope, whoever is elected president, we could get back into having a serious discussion about the benefits to America of being in the trading business,” McConnell said. “Right now it’s politically toxic, and I don’t think the Congress is ready to tackle it in any positive way.”
Even if Democrats take back the Senate, there are still a handful of Democrats who want to pass TPP and other trade deals. In the House, Ryan is likely to remain in charge, and he has been one of the strongest proponents of trade deals in that chamber.
Since Congress did pass TPA, it means that whatever deal the next president puts forward, it will move through Congress in an expedited process that bars any amendments. There are also no ways for the Senate to filibuster a fast-track deal, since it requires only simple majority votes.