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Once an Obama ally on trade deal, Utah’s Hatch may fight latest proposal

First Published      Last Updated Mar 24 2016 10:29 am

Big Pharma » Drug industry is GOP senator’s biggest contributor, pouring more than $2M into his campaigns.

Washington • When President Barack Obama made a whirlwind visit to Utah in April, he took a few minutes to praise Sen. Orrin Hatch for his help in pushing legislation that would fast-track pending trade agreements.

"Orrin Hatch is working very hard on that," Obama said at Hill Air Force Base. "Utah is one of the leading exporting states in the country, and part of the reason that this state has been so successful. And we're very grateful that Sen. Hatch is working with [Oregon] Sen. [Ron] Wyden to make sure that we can get that deal done."

That measure, the Trade Promotion Authority, passed Congress, but now with Hatch's help may actually doom the president's push for a transpacific-trade deal. The TPA allows Congress only an up or down vote on a trade deal without amendments, but it also mandates that the legislative body gets to review and suggest changes to the administration.

The Utah Republican may use the TPA's congressional-review power to force a change to the long-negotiated trade pact between the United States and 11 Pacific Rim countries.

The Utah Republican, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, objects to part of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, specifically how it treats the intellectual property rights of U.S. pharmaceutical companies. But the stronger protections Hatch advocates are opposed by critics who say it will deprive poor people in many nations access to essential, sometimes life-saving medicines.

Hatch said he is trying to protect jobs and future investment in research.

Starting over? • "While I understand that parties have deemed the negotiations closed, the agreement cannot enter into force if Congress doesn't agree to it," Hatch told the U.S. Chamber of Commerce recently. "At the end of the day, [the U.S. Trade Representative] may need to go back to the negotiating table and try again. That result is not ideal, but it is certainly not unprecedented. I understand that renegotiation may be difficult, particularly with so many parties involved. But at the end of the day, the alternative to renegotiation may very well be no TPP at all."

Re-opening negotiations is problematic. The White House said such a move would be dangerous. Japan's minister called the deal a "glass ornament" that would break if re-opened.

"No, it would not be wise, after five years of negotiations with among 12 different countries, to try to renegotiate the agreement, particularly considering that the agreement was only reached a month ago," White House press secretary Josh Earnest said earlier this month.

Hatch said he wants to see the TPP become law, but adds that a number of lawmakers aren't happy with the final proposal and it could run into roadblocks if Congress was asked to vote on it now. TPP's details were only released a few weeks ago

"We fought very hard to enact a strong TPA bill into law," Hatch said. "And, we now have an obligation to make sure this agreement meets the high standards set by TPA and truly benefits American job creators, workers, and entrepreneurs. That's why we expect to undertake a rigorous review of TPP."

Hatch wouldn't say whether he'd hold up the trade deal — "I'm reserving final judgment on the deal until I've had ample time to vet it," he said — but adds that given its scope and complexity, Congress must take time to review all the details. Among Hatch's concerns, he wants to make sure the Obama administration can demonstrate that trading partners will meet their commitments under the deal.

"I'm hopeful that, at the end of the day, I, along with many of my colleagues, will be able to support a strong TPP," Hatch said. "But this is a once-in-a-life opportunity and we have to make sure we get it right."

Protecting drugmakers • Hatch has targeted one part of the deal in particular: TPP's limit on drugmakers' monopoly protections on their new medicines. Pharmaceutical companies had wanted, as part of the deal, a continuation of their exclusive rights for 12 years, as mandated under federal law, but the compromise trade plan only offers five to eight years of protections.

The pharmaceutical industry has long been Hatch's biggest campaign contributor. The Utah Republican has accepted nearly $2.3 million from individuals or political action committees tied to the industry during his 38-year Senate career, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. That doesn't include $750,000 the drug lobby's main trade group, Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, chipped into his tough primary race in 2012 through a nonprofit group Freedom Path.

PhRMA also has been a big contributor — to the tune of $40,000 annually — to the Utah Families Foundation, a charity founded by Hatch and his wife a quarter century ago.

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