WASHINGTON — The largest trade deal in the nation's history is not quite dead, says the Texan positioned to usher the most sweeping piece of economic legislation of the Obama era through the U.S. House.
But as U.S. Rep. Kevin Brady, R-The Woodlands, nears the end of his first year as the House Ways and Means Committee chairman, his biggest leadership test could be nigh.
The chairmanship places him on point in the House Republican effort to pass the controversial Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal. Brady says he's not completely on board yet. But if he commits, it will seal a strange alliance pitting the White House and House GOP leadership against the bases of both parties.
The stakes are high. It's the largest trade deal in history, tying together 11 other countries including Australia, Japan, Chile and Vietnam. If ratified by all countries involved, the treaty would create a trade partnership encompassing one-third of the world's trade and as much as 40 percent of the world's gross domestic product, according to the Brookings Institution.
Congress must ratify the treaty for the United States to be a party, but many Capitol Hill insiders have proclaimed the troubled legislation dead. Not so fast, Brady told the Tribune on Wednesday. There is a chance the trade deal could move through Congress in the lame duck session between the November elections and the new Congress in January.
"We will neither delay nor rush this agreement," he said.
Brady inherited leadership of the trade deal in late 2015 when he succeeded now-U.S. Speaker Paul Ryan at Ways and Means, the tax writing committee. Like Brady, Ryan was a vigorous advocate of the treaty. But despite the popularity of the officeholders pushing the deal in their parties, it has had a troubled trajectory.
In 2015, labor leaned hard on Democrats to oppose moving treaty legislation forward — in effect rebelling against their president. Some Republicans who might be ideologically inclined toward free trade were repelled at the idea of giving the president a legislative win.
So now the pressure is on Brady: The bill must pass before inauguration if it is to pass at all because both of the major party presidential nominees, Republican Donald Trump and Democrat Hilary Clinton, are on the record against the deal.
There are no clear partisan lines drawn on this issue. Free trade has long been a doctrinal issue for congressional conservatives. President Obama, sees the treaty as a means to counter growing Chinese economic power in the Pacific Rim.
The deal has strong advocates, but many in Congress dread the idea that it could surface for a vote.
In the early summer of 2015, President Obama, Ryan and allies narrowly passed the first phase of the deal, legislation giving the president power to negotiate with other countries. But along the way, both men ran into political buzz saws.
On the Democratic side, labor is a natural adversary of free trade. House Democrats were torn between upsetting one of their largest constituencies — unions — and defying their president.
Meanwhile, House Republicans similarly struggled, despite an ideological inclination to back trade.
The most dramatic moment on the Republican side of the fight came when then-presidential candidate U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz pulled his support at the last minute, scrambling the vote-counting duties of his Texas colleague, U.S. Sen. Majority Whip John Cornyn.
The actual treaty the president brought back for congressional ratification earned mixed reviews. Brady supports the concept in theory but said he has qualms about intellectual property, tobacco and implementation provisions.
While many Republican rank-and-file members back free trade, there was a clear reluctance to support the president on any policy. Branding became a problem when the conservative base began to label it "Obamatrade," sending some House GOP members running for the hills.
Brady insists free trade "is at the core of Republican principles," along with limited government and a robust defense.
"Whether we like this president or not, we shouldn't back off our push to get Americans more economic freedom to buy and sell and compete with as little government interference as possible whether it's in Texas or around the world," he said.
"So let's not abandon one of our core Republican values simply because this president hasn't built relationships with us for seven and a half years."
The biggest obstacle, though, has almost nothing to do with Congress: It's the presidential campaign.
In the year since Obama returned to Congress with the deal, anti-trade populism became a driving force in both party primaries. Both nominees are on the record against the deal.
There are signals coming from the White House that the president is still pushing for a deal, and Brady cautiously indicated that a path to passage exists at the end of the year — if the president can deliver the votes.
"It depends on whether the president is successful in that push to attract more Democrats to support TPP and whether his trade agency ... can address members' concerns about the agreement," he said.
"Congress controls the clock, and we control ultimately whether the agreement is approved," he said. "And so the sooner ... those issues get resolved, the sooner we can start the process."
But what if time runs out?
Brady avoided predictions about a new administration. Trump has made an anti-trade agenda central to his presidential campaign message — and at times has not seemed to understand that the deal not only excluded China but was designed to counter China.
Brady opted to focus on common ground with the nominee, namely a shared interest in enforcing trade laws.
"What I'm absolutely certain of is, every day we delay in accessing that Asia-Pacific region, the more we lose economically," he said. "I think it is a mistake to withdraw from Trans-Pacific Partnership because if America abandons the Asia Pacific markets, we'll lose.
He said he would encourage Trump to not abandon the deal completely: "My advice to him is to improve it."
If the next president will not support TPP, Brady insists the onus now is on the president.
"The clock, though, is ticking," he said. "If the president wants this agreement to be ready for consideration this year, he has to pick up the pace to resolve some of these issues."
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