Sens. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., left, and Richard Burr, R-N.C., are among the senators who want to ensure protections for tobacco exports. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
The Trans-Pacific Partnership’s rocky road in Congress faces a fresh threat from tobacco-state senators.
A brief trip down memory lane: Trade Promotion Authority passed with 62 votes in June, paving the way for a simple-majority threshold for the 12-nation trade deal.
But to get there, TPA required legislative jujitsu packaged with other bills, complex vote sequences and a ping-pong with the House to draw enough votes.
TPA endured one Democratic filibuster. It dealt with a messy human trafficking provision as well as language combating currency manipulation. It sustained vociferous opposition from most Democrats and unions and Republican opposition to the relinquishment of Congressional power.
And despite all of that, it’s tobacco’s status as a significant cash crop in Kentucky that could snuff out TPP in the end.
Reuters reported the administration had been considering allowing tobacco to be carved out of the investor-state dispute settlement, which, among other things, would give tobacco companies little protection against stiff regulation by trade partners, like Australia’s ban on branded cigarette packs.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, along with Republican Sens. Richard M. Burr and Thom Tillis of North Carolina, have repeatedly protested even the vague notion of a provision targeting tobacco.
Both in person and through correspondence, McConnell has pressed U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman throughout the negotiations to ensure there is no provision targeting tobacco, even citing the crop’s role in “important biomedical research.”
“As you know, I am very optimistic about the potential for Kentucky’s manufacturing workers and farmers — including its thousands of tobacco growers — to benefit from new export opportunities facilitated by a completed TPP agreement,” McConnell wrote in a July 30 letter to Froman. “It is essential as you work to finalize the TPP, you allow Kentucky tobacco to realize the same economic benefits and export potential other U.S. agricultural commodities will enjoy with a successful agreement.”
Needless to say, not many things happen in the Senate if the majority leader doesn’t want them to happen, and he’s calling tobacco protections “essential.”
It’s unclear where Kentucky’s junior senator stands: Rand Paul, a Republican running for reelection as well as the GOP presidential nomination. His office did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Burr, who sits on the Finance Committee, which includes trade in its jurisdiction, told CQ Roll Call he’d received assurances from Froman that tobacco would not be excluded from protections in the deal.
Burr, who took the strongest position out of the three senators, asked again from Froman for reassurance that tobacco would be treated differently and vowed to do everything possible to derail the trade legislation if tobacco isn’t protected.
“I was told it wouldn’t be in there, that I didn’t need to worry about it,” Burr told CQ Roll Call. “And that was before I cast a crucial vote on TPA, which changed the [vote threshold] from 60 to 51. I made a promise to him before that if it was in there I’d do everything in my power to kill the TPP. And I will.”
Tillis argued in a letter to Froman in early August that a tobacco carveout would set a dangerous precedent for future trade deals and could scare away would-be supporters of the deal.
“A number of my colleagues share my view that the TPP can be a net positive in the long run,” Tillis wrote. “I am confident, however, that the path toward ratification will be significantly endangered if the administration or one of our trading partners impose their biases by targeting specific industries for exclusion.”
A spokesperson for the U.S. Trade Representative wouldn’t speak directly to the carveout in a statement to CQ Roll Call, saying only that “We are working proactively to promote the interests of American farmers and preventing discrimination against them, while ensuring that the FDA and health authorities of other countries can implement tobacco regulations to protect public health.”
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