U.S. Congress opens up free-trade debate, and Canada's paying attention

WASHINGTON – The U.S. Congress has opened a critical chapter in negotiations toward a massive, 12-country free-trade deal and the Canadian government is closely following developments.

The government says it’s watching the debate over a so-called fast track bill that would allow negotiations to move forward toward a Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement.

“We are currently analyzing the contents of the bill and are following the process closely,” Max Moncaster, a spokesman for International Trade Minister Ed Fast, said Friday.

“Canada would welcome a U.S. political outcome that allows TPP negotiations to move towards a balanced agreement that will benefit all member states.”

The Canadian government has repeatedly suggested that it won’t make final concessions on the most contentious issues without a fast-track bill passing Congress.

Since the U.S. Constitution gives lawmakers authority over foreign treaties, individual members could pick apart a deal and fill it with amendments unless they vote to give the president negotiating power.

The Canadians’ reluctance to complete negotiations has prompted some U.S. lawmakers and members of the administration to muse about dumping Canada from the deal.

When asked last fall about U.S. frustrations with the Canadian side playing hardball, Ottawa’s ambassador to Washington was less than apologetic: “Good. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I consider that a compliment,” Gary Doer said in an interview.

“We’re not going to be in a situation where you negotiate an agreement and everyone on (Capitol) Hill can amend it.”

He said a top Canadian priority was getting a procurement agreement at the sub-national level, so that states would have less power to insist on Buy America provisions in infrastructure projects.

The Americans, meanwhile, want Canada to reduce protectionism over dairy and poultry imports, while increasing protections for intellectual property — notably for pharmaceuticals.

The fast-track bill introduced in Congress refers to both those U.S. priorities. If it passes, it would open the door to a single up-or-down vote in Congress on any future deal. Lawmakers, however, could vote to overturn fast track if they deem that the president strayed from the negotiating positions spelled out in the bill.

The legislation says any deal should insist on intellectual-property rules similar to those found in U.S. law. On agriculture, it urges the administration to consider whether countries are maintaining export subsidies or other programs that distort the market.

The bill will prompt a fierce battle on Capitol Hill.

It’ll be a strange one.

In this case, President Barack Obama will be aligned with his Republican foes against the more left-leaning members of his own Democratic party — because progressives fear that the agreement will just bleed more middle-class jobs to Asia, and drive down the wages of American workers.

Even the business-friendly Democrat touted as the party’s future leader in the Senate, Chuck Schumer, has suggested he’ll probably vote against it because it hurts middle-class economics.

Obama called those fears understandable — but wrong. He said Friday that the deal will enshrine better labour, trade and environmental standards in existing commercial relationships.

He used the example of Japan — which is involved in the negotiations.

“The last time I checked, if you drive around Washington, there are a whole bunch of Japanese cars. You go to Tokyo and count how many Chryslers and GM and Ford cars there are,” Obama said.

“So the current situation is not working for us. And I don’t know why it is that folks would be opposed to us opening up the Japanese market more for U.S. autos or U.S. beef. It doesn’t make any sense.”