With a vote on a controversial free trade deal looking increasingly unlikely before the 2016 presidential election, critics warn that congressional leaders may try to push it through after the election but before new leaders take office.
A vote on the Trans-Pacific Partnership in the so-called lame duck session would free lawmakers who have been defeated or are retiring from having to face angry voters.
“I am sure the president would like nothing more than to hold the vote on his 5,554-page plan during the lame duck,” Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala, said in a prepared statement Friday. “But our job is not to help the president to bypass voters, or cement his legacy when no one is looking; our job is to uphold the will of voters and protect their jobs, wages and Constitution.
“Congress, under no circumstances, should vote on this sweeping international accord in a lame duck post-election session of Congress.”
Speculation has intensified since Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., told the Washington Post on Thursday it would be “a big mistake” for President Obama to submit the trade deal before the election.
The deal would bind the United States and 11 other countries, collectively comprising about 40 percent of the world economy, into a complex set of rules governing trade. Opponents of the deal say it would displace American workers and surrender U.S. sovereignty to a commission of unelected bureaucrats.
There is precedent for using lame duck sessions to pass trade agreements.
“Historically, the lame duck is a place to push legislation where members can’t be held accountable,” said Kevin Kearns, president of the U.S. Business and Industry Council. “They can vote their consciences, or they can vote their next job.”
There is precedent for using lame duck sessions to pass trade agreements. Congress did it when it passed the Trade Act of 1974 and again 20 years later when it voted to create the World Trade Organization.
Peter Navarro, a professor at the University of California at Irvine, said the tactic might be the only way Trans-Pacific Partnership supporters could get the pact through a Congress that it is under increasing pressure from the Left and the Right.
“It’s fair to say the politics of it right now are toxic,” said Navarro, author of “Crouching Tiger: What China’s Militarism Means for the World,” and other books on China. “If past is prologue, then they certainly will go for a lame duck session.”
Supporters of the trade deal largely have been mum about the potential for a lame duck vote. Several pro-trade lobbyists declined to be interviewed.
Chris Hoyer, a spokesman the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said in an email to LifeZette that the business lobby continues to hold “robust, thoughtful discussions” with members and partners about the agreement.
“Until we complete these reviews and consultations, we won’t have further comment on TPP,” he wrote.
That fits predictions that supporters will attempt to keep the issue out of the spotlight until after the election. A congressional staffer, speaking on condition of anonymity, said supporters are unlikely to grant interviews, give speeches or take other steps in order to keep public attention focused elsewhere.
Several experts said the winner of the presidential election will help determine how trade deal supporters proceed. They might try to race it across the finish line before the new president takes office. If a more Establishment Republican wins, they might decide to wait until he or she takes office, possibly trying to renegotiate it.
Navarro pointed out that after a first attempt failed earlier this year, Republican leaders managed to resurrect a bill giving Obama a free hand to negotiate a deal without giving Congress the ability to amend it.
“We saw the ability of Republican leaders to use parliamentary procedures and things of that nature to get it through,” he said.
But there are factors working against the deal. In addition to public opinion, McConnell is unhappy about provisions affecting the tobacco industry, an important industry in his state. Sen. Orrin Hatch, a Utah Republican and Finance Committee chair who overseas trade issues in the Senate, has expressed concern that the deal would reduce trademark protections for next-generation biologic drugs.
“They both have constituencies that are unhappy with TPP,” Kearns said.