Obama Says China Showing Interest in Asia-Pacific Trade Deal

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President Barack Obama raised the prospect Wednesday that the world’s most populous country may someday join the largest-ever U.S. trade agreement, as he courts reluctant Democrats to grant him authority to fast-track the deal through Congress.

Obama said in an interview Wednesday on American Public Media’s “Marketplace” radio program that China has inquired about eventually joining a free-trade pact the U.S. is negotiating with 11 other Pacific Rim nations. China isn’t currently party to the talks.

Obama said even if China doesn’t join, the accord would put pressure on the world’s second biggest economy to bend to its terms, and that would benefit the U.S., Obama said. The interview, as well as others today with local television stations, is part of a public and private campaign to persuade lawmakers to grant Obama fast-track authority to negotiate the deal and submit it to Congress for expedited passage.

“They’ve already started putting out feelers about the possibilities of them participating at some point,” Obama said of China. He didn’t indicate whether the U.S. would encourage China’s participation, and a White House spokeswoman didn’t immediately respond to follow-up questions.

“The fact is that if we have 11 of the leading economies in the Asia-Pacific region, who have agreed to enforceable labor standards, enforceable environmental standards, strong IP protections, non-discrimination against foreign firms that are operating access to those markets, reduced tariffs, then China is going to have to at least take those international norms into account,” Obama said in the interview. IP refers to intellectual property.

Public Message

The interview was scheduled to air in more than 700 cities. Obama also planned to sit Wednesday for a round of interviews with local television stations from Dallas, El Paso, San Diego, Seattle and Sacramento.

The White House’s strategy on the Pacific trade deal includes a direct appeal to voters in the districts of lawmakers the Obama administration has lobbied to support fast-track authority. Obama has also made direct pitches to individual members, assuring them of his support against challengers in a potential Democratic primary, White House press secretary Josh Earnest said.

El Paso, for example, is represented in the House by Beto O’Rourke, a Democrat who hasn’t said how he’ll vote on the trade bill.

The president’s aides say they know the bill faces an uphill climb in the House, after clearing the Senate last month in a hard-won 62-37 vote. The pathway to passage in the House will be less than direct and may face more obstacles than in the Senate, they said.

Democratic Votes

House Democrats largely oppose Obama’s trade agenda. He is more likely to convince undecided Republicans than to sway members of his own party, Representative Xavier Becerra of California, the fourth-ranking Democrat, said last month.

Democrats face growing pressure from labor unions, which historically provide the party with campaign support. Unions have told voters that Obama’s Asia-Pacific trade deal, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, will lead to more jobs shipped overseas.

“We’re aware the president is making calls and the White House has the Cabinet out flying across the country, urging members to change their minds,” Bill Samuel, director of government affairs for the AFL-CIO, said in a telephone interview. “Our resources are much more limited but we do have voters, and activists.”

Union Ads

The AFL-CIO recently aired ads targeting Representative Ami Bera of California, who came out in favor of the trade bill. It also posted a Craigslist ad in Bera’s Sacramento district seeking a “Congressman w/ a backbone.” The Coalition to Stop Fast Track, which includes the AFL-CIO, is airing ads against the trade promotion bill in 16 congressional districts.

Samuel said the trade bill is about 20 to 30 votes short of a majority in the House, with as many as 90 percent of House Democrats opposed.

House Republican leaders have said they plan to move forward on the bill this month. Trade supporters in both parties have previously said that they expect to get enough votes to win a majority in the 433-member House.

Primary Help

Earnest said Obama has told Democrats that he would “stand with them” if they’re targeted in a primary over their trade votes.

“There’s ample data to point you to that indicates the influence that the president has among Democratic voters all across the country,” he said. “Having the strong support of the most popular figure in Democratic politics for your re-election, I think most Democrats are going to find beneficial to their congressional campaigns.”

The fast-track bill would let Obama submit trade agreements to Congress for an expedited, up-or-down vote without amendments. Obama has said he needs the authority to close the Trans-Pacific Partnership with countries including Japan and Vietnam.

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