By Timothy Gardner and Ayesha Rascoe
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Barack Obama and Singapore’s prime minister on Tuesday made sales pitches for a Pacific Rim trade deal that both U.S. presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump have derided and that has been stalled in Congress.
Aiming to keep alive hopes for a post-election congressional vote in the closing weeks of 2016 in favor of the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), Obama said its merits would overcome fierce criticism on the campaign trail.
“Hopefully after the election is over and the dust settles, there will be more attention to the actual facts behind the deal. It won’t just be a political symbol or a political football,” Obama told a White House news conference with Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong during a state visit.
Republican presidential nominee Trump and Democratic rival Clinton have said they oppose the TPP in its current form. Trump has taken a more radical anti-free-trade stance, threatening to tear up the 22-year-old North American Free Trade Agreement and slap punitive tariffs on goods imported from Mexico and China.
The TPP, which counts Singapore and the United States among its signatories, along with countries such as Japan, Mexico and Vietnam, faces a tough fight in Congress. Many lawmakers there are also running for re-election in November and face a rising tide of anti-free-trade sentiment driven by manufacturing job losses.
House tax committee Chairman Kevin Brady, a Republican, has said he would back a vote if members’ concerns about TPP, including provisions on financial services, biologic drugs and tobacco, can be addressed by the Obama administration.
Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell has called prospects for a vote this year “bleak”, especially now that Clinton’s vice presidential running mate Senator Tim Kaine also opposes the agreement.
But the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the most powerful business lobby in Washington, is not giving up on a possible vote in the “lame duck” congressional session after the Nov. 8 elections.
“We are a leading proponent of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, an effort we can’t – and won’t – give up on,” Chamber President Tom Donohue said at an event honoring Lee on Monday night.
In their news conference, Lee cast the deal as pivotal to the U.S.-Asia relationship. “In terms of America’s engagement of the region, you have put your reputation on the line,” he said.
Dropping out of the TPP could harm U.S. relations with its allies in Asia, and may cause Japan to question whether it can continue to depend on the United States for security, he said.
The TPP aims to liberalize commerce in 40 percent of the world’s economy and is widely seen as an economic counterweight to China’s influence in Asia.
(Additional reporting by David Lawder; Editing by Kevin Drawbaugh and James Dalgleish)