Trade ministers from the 12 participating nations are trying to finalize the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) this week in Atlanta. As hard as those negotiations may be, any deal that emerges will have to make it through the US Congress. How have the odds changed with Speaker John Boehner’s surprise resignation announcement last week?
Supporters of TPP will find comfort looking at the voting records of the two candidates vying for the speakership—Kevin McCarthy (R-California) and Daniel Webster (R-Florida). The CATO Institute has a nifty database that tracks all the trade votes by members of Congress, and ranks them accordingly. McCarthy and Webster, like Boehner, both supported recent US free trade deals with Columbia, Korea, and Panama. And while McCarthy is a more vocal supporter of the TPP than Webster, both men ultimately voted in favor of passing Trade Promotion Authority (TPA) in June. Similarly, the three top contenders for House majority leader—Tom Price (R-Georgia), Steve Scalise (R-Louisiana), and Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Washington)— all have solid voting records in favor of free trade and voted to pass TPA.
This suggests there is a very good chance that whomever assumes Republican leadership in the post-Boehner House will continue to carry the TPP torch.
But if the case for TPP optimism can be found by looking at the new potential Republican leadership, the case for pessimism can be found by looking everywhere else.
Start with rank-and-file Republicans. Will Boehner’s resignation make them more or less likely to vote for the TPP? Consider that Boehner’s fate demonstrated to other House Republicans the perils of compromise, and the consequences of betraying the more conservative members of Congress. His resignation was an apparent victory for the ultra-conservative House Freedom Caucus, which will likely grow in influence after Boehner leaves. Given that the TPP is one of President Obama’s top policy priorities, how many House Republicans will be willing to hand him a victory in the thick of the 2016 campaign season?
Add to this the overwhelming Democratic opposition to the deal. Bernie Sanders, who represents an influential and growing voice from the left, declares the TPP is “anti-worker legislation” that “must be defeated.” Or look at the fiery populist rhetoric that is gaining traction within conservative circles that generally look favorably at free trade. Donald Trump calls the deal a “disaster” and an “attack on America’s business.” These grievances will be more and more difficult to ignore the closer we get to elections.
Finally, remember that TPP will need 218 votes to pass in the House. And recall that in the June 18 House vote to advance Trade Promotion Authority, there were few votes to spare (see Figure 1). This means that defections, whether Democrat or Republican, could be fatal for the deal.
Of course, if trade negotiations drift in Atlanta, there may be no deal for Congress to vote on. But even if an agreement is reached, the struggle over TPP will be far from over.