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Pacific trade ministers vow to reach agreement

Deal would be a legacy-defining achievement for Obama 

ATLANTA, Oct 2, (Agencies): Trade ministers from a dozen Pacific nations meeting in Atlanta extended talks on a sweeping trade deal until Saturday in a bid to get a final agreement on the most ambitious trade pact in a generation. Officials extended talks originally scheduled to wrap up on Thursday in a determined effort to produce a breakthrough on the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which would liberalize trade in 40 percent of the world economy for a region stretching from Vietnam to Canada. “No one wants to leave without an agreement,” Mexican Economy Minister Ildefonso Guajardo told Reuters after a second plenary session of top officials from all 12 nations.

“The good news is that we will not leave here without one.” Observers pointed to progress on autos, Canada’s pledge to compensate farmers hurt by imports and signs of a possible compromise on patent protection for new drugs as evidence of advancement – although that remained a key sticking point. “We are starting to see the path to an agreement and have agreed to make final efforts,” Japanese Economy Minister Akira Amari told reporters.

Several officials said a final deal could come quickly depending on the outcome of bilateral talks on intellectual property protection for medicines and trade in dairy and autos. Amari said the monopoly period for biologic drugs, which are made from living cells, was the most difficult issue remaining. TPP countries have protection periods ranging from 12 years in the United States to five years in countries including Australia and Chile. A deal would be a legacy-defining achievement for US President Barack Obama. But the trade deal is seen as a threat by an array of interest groups from Mexican auto workers to Quebec dairy farmers to cancer patients who worry that it could push the cost of new therapies out of reach.

In a reassertion of concern in Congress, a group of US lawmakers from both parties sent a letter to US Trade Representative Michael Froman and Treasury Secretary Jack Lew on Wednesday. “We urge you to take the time necessary to get the best deal possible for the United States, working closely with us,” said the letter signed by House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Paul Ryan and Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch as well as the senior Democrats on those two committees.

Several Republicans attacked a new US proposal to ensure governments would be free to enact anti-smoking measures without fear of legal action by tobacco companies. That could prevent companies like Philip Morris and Japan Tobacco Inc from using rules to protect foreign investors to challenge public health measures but falls short of the sweeping measure anti-smoking groups had hoped for. Guajardo said talks on auto trade had progressed but were not over yet. The auto issue is crucial for Japan, whose automakers, led by Toyota Motor Corp, depend on sales to the US market and want flexibility on sourcing auto parts. But Mexico, which has experienced a boom in auto-related investment over the last two decades, wants to protect its manufacturers against increased competition from Asia.

The stakes were high for many, with farm and pharmaceutical industry lobbyists from various countries and civil society activists gathered at the same Atlanta hotel to defend their interests. Negotiators face political pressures back home, with Canada in the middle of a national election and the United States preparing one next year. A group of senior US legislators warned Washington’s negotiators to not give up US interests in pursuing a deal, with Congress’s support key to getting any final pact ratified.

“We urge you to take the time necessary to get the best deal possible for the United States, working closely with us and with stakeholders to resolve the many outstanding issues in these critically important negotiations,” they said in a letter to Froman and Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew. Since initiating the talks in 2008, the United States has been hoping to lock in rules on free trade and intellectual property protection that global trade heavyweight China would eventually have to heed. China, however, has already begun trying to set up its own Asia trade agreement, which analysts worry could take concrete shape if TPP talks fail.

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