Trade ministers from a dozen nations have gathered at a beachside hotel in Maui on Tuesday for talks aimed at knocking down tariff barriers, clearing political hurdles and sealing a new Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement that would bind countries on both sides of the vast ocean. For the U.S. delegation, these late-stage negotiations may be the last chance to close the deal before it gets swamped by 2016 election politics.
President Obama has vowed that the agreement, which would cover 40 percent of the global economy, would not only tear down trade barriers but also establish tougher labor, environmental and human rights standards. But foes of the deal — including most liberal Democrats and labor unions — fear that the negotiations being held in secret will not do enough to protect American workers, consumers and small businesses. And human rights groups say the administration is turning a blind eye to abuses in countries such as Malaysia and Brunei.
After six years of negotiation, the Obama administration is feeling pressed for time. Unless the ministers reach an agreement on major issues this week, there might not be enough time to get the trade bill through Congress before the end of the year, raising the chances that lawmakers will be too worried about their political survival to vote for the deal in an election year. The fast-track bill passed in June says Obama must notify Congress 90 days before he signs it.
Aware of the stakes and urgency, representatives from major companies and industries have flown to Hawaii in the hope of cornering trade officials and putting in a word about their issues.
Those issues include items such as the length of protection for pharmaceutical research data, steep dairy tariffs in Canada, access of foreign rice growers to the Japanese market and greater access to the U.S. market for Japanese automakers, especially for pickup trucks. One major U.S. technology company, typical of others in an industry that faces duties of up to 35 percent in TPP countries, expects to save hundreds of millions of dollars because of lower tariffs across Asia.
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