White House: Trans-Pacific Agreement a ‘Top Priority’

White House: Trans-Pacific Agreement a ‘Top Priority’

With President Barack Obama traveling in Asia, the White House and 11 other nations said Monday they made “significant” progress toward a sweeping new trans-Pacific free-trade deal and are making the pact’s conclusion a top priority.

The progress has “set the stage to bring these landmark Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) negotiations to a conclusion,” trade ministers participating in the TPP talks said in a joint statement ( PDF ) released by the White House.

Despite the optimistic tone, trade policy sources in and outside of government noted some of the remaining issues are among the thorniest, including how to deal with state-owned enterprises, labor and human rights standards and market barriers, especially those for autos and agriculture products with Japan.

Some of those also are among the issues that divide Democrats, presenting a hurdle for Obama in winning support from his own party for a trade deal. Republican Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Senate’s majority-leader-in-waiting, has cited trade as one area where the incoming GOP Senate majority can work with the White House on legislation .

Monday’s statement suggests the negotiators are close enough to an agreement with other TPP participants to put consideration of fast-track authority in Congress a more pressing concern.

“We are encouraged that Ministers and negotiators have narrowed the remaining gaps on the legal text of the agreement and that they are intensively engaging to complete ambitious and balanced packages to open our markets to one another,” the statement said.

“With the end coming into focus, we have instructed our Ministers and negotiators to make concluding this agreement a top priority so that our businesses, workers, farmers, and consumers can start to reap the real and substantial benefits of the TPP agreement as soon as possible,” the ministers added.

Fast-track trade negotiating authority is a crucial step to getting a trade deal smoothly through Congress. Fast track sets out negotiating objectives for the administration to follow, but more importantly permits Congress only and up-or-down vote on a finished deal without amendments.

Trade measures such as fast track and the TPP are potentially areas where the GOP-led Congress and the Obama administration could find common ground .

In addition to the United States, the countries involved in the deal include Australia, Brunei Darussalam, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore and Vietnam.