President Barack Obama's Asia trip and related summits have generated much press coverage about the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

To the extent that the Democratic Party's election drubbing has figured into those stories, the implications for the partnership (TPP) have often been mischaracterised.

While Obama's urgency to make a deal has intensified, the Republicans' sweep has limited his flexibility.

The lengthy US congressional process for approving trade pacts means Obama is running out of time if an enacted TPP is to be among his legacies. Thus, Obama's negotiators have begun to compromise.

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But Republicans now control the Congress that will sit during Obama's final years.

The insistence that TPP requires Japan to zero out tariffs for agricultural products has come mainly from Republicans, the party most closely affiliated with US agribusiness. Yet TPP ministers and leaders effectively gave that away when they met in Beijing last week.

It has also been Republicans, led by Senator Orrin Hatch, the incoming chairman of the committee responsible for trade, who have demanded extended monopoly rights for biologic drugs in TPP. Their demand for such "exclusivity" terms that would raise prices for cutting-edge cancer drugs faces opposition by other TPP countries, including New Zealand.

Prominent Republicans have also insisted the TPP includes enforceable disciplines against currency manipulation that would undercut Japan and other nations' practice of devaluing their currency to boost exports.

Letters making that demand were signed by a supermajority of 60 US senators and 230 House members.

Senior Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, an ardent "free trader" who has supported all past free trade agreements and whose leadership Obama would need to pass the TPP, says he will oppose it.

Yet, Obama's negotiators have not even offered a currency proposal in the TPP negotiations.

For Obama to ignore congressional TPP demands is dangerous. The US Constitution gives Congress exclusive authority over trade.

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A US president can sign an agreement, but the deal will not go into effect unless Congress okays it.

Since the nation's founding, the US Congress has devised various ways to direct executive branch trade negotiators to obtain outcomes it would approve.

Then came Fast Track, hatched by President Richard Nixon, which upended years of congressional trade authority. It allowed a president to sign a deal before Congress voted, write legislation to implement it, and guaranteed a vote in 90 days with limited debate and no amendments allowed.

Over the past 20 years, Congress has only authorised Fast Track once - for five years.

Indeed, in 1998, 171 Democrats were joined by 71 Republicans in a Republican-controlled House in explicitly voting down President Bill Clinton's Fast Track request.

Washington cognoscenti assume that Obama's dismissive approach to Congress on the TPP means he believes the pact can be railroaded through Congress using Fast Track.

But the prospect that Obama will get Fast Track authority is no stronger after the election, despite some hype to the contrary.

The House is where Fast Track and trade pacts always have their most difficult challenge.

Even though the House Republican leaders passionately support Fast Track, almost every House Democrat opposes it. Passing it would require a party-line vote by Republicans to grant massive new authority to the Democratic president they have slammed for years as an imperial president who grabs power.

The latest talk in Washington is about whether Obama's real TPP goal is just to sign a deal - any deal - and leave the next president to renegotiate something that could obtain congressional passage.


Lori Wallach is the head of Washington-based Public Citizen Global Trade Watch.