Presidential race challenges Obama's free-trade agreement

WASHINGTON – Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton agree on almost nothing, except for their dislike of a sweeping agreement that would erase most tariffs and other trade barriers among the United States and 11 other nations.

“Insanity,” Trump calls the deal. Democrat Bernie Sanders describes it as “disastrous.” Clinton and Republican Ted Cruz have used less colorful language but ultimately oppose the pact. The final candidate still standing in the Republican presidential primary, Ohio Gov. Josh Kasich, supports the deal, but he is running a distant third.

All the criticism from the presidential candidates has created more difficulties for the Trans-Pacific Partnership, one of President Barack Obama’s top priorities in his final year in office.

While the trade pact is supposed to make products cheaper for consumers and help level the playing field for exporters, opponents say it includes giveaways to business lobbies and will cause downward pressure on wages and job losses in some industries.

For the pact’s supporters, there’s a huge incentive to try to get something done this year, knowing the next president will be hard-pressed to touch the issue at first.

Some Democratic supporters of the TPP have come around to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s position that it’s best to wait until after the November elections to have a vote in Congress.

Groups working behind the scenes in support of the agreement said many lawmakers are cautious about staking out a positon on TPP. Another big challenge is the short legislative calendar as lawmakers spend more time at home campaigning and less in Washington.

“Make no mistake, the presidential campaign is a huge factor. It presents a stream of challenges that’s difficult for a trade association to deal with,” said John Murphy, a senior vice-president at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

Congress approved legislation last year that allows TPP to be approved by a simple majority without opportunities to amend it. The Obama administration believes that coalition remains largely intact.

The real battle will be in the House, where last year’s fast-track legislation passed by a narrow vote of 219-211. The administration is hoping that business and agriculture groups can sustain Republican support and limit any dropouts among the 28 House Democratic lawmakers who supported fast-track trade legislation last year.

Opponents say TPP is in big trouble. The more voters hear about the deal, the less likely they are to support it, said Lori Wallach, an international trade analyst at Public Citizen, a non-profit public interest group.

While the trade deal has already been negotiated, it’s routine for lawmakers to seek informal commitments from the president to address their concerns, or side agreements between nations that would spell out additional obligations above and beyond the trade pact itself.