President Barack Obama suffers a setback as his own party rejects a bill to fast track trade ties with Asia.
It is the biggest free trade deal in history and if the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) goes through, it will affect 40 percent of the global economy.
But most people – outside of government negotiators – don’t know what’s in it even though the White House is asking politicians and the public to support it.
The TPP’s secrecy is at the heart of a battle taking place in Washington that has US President Barack Obama fighting his own party.
One leading critic told Al Jazeera the White House has learned from past experience where deals were killed by too much public input and they’re not going to let it happen again.
The White House and their negotiators, “know that the American public would object to many of the provisions,” argues Susan Sell, George Washington University professor and leading critic of the TPP.
“Many suspect that this is a deal written by the so-called one percent for the one percent.”
Opponents are upset that industry executives have been an integral part of the negotiating process and argue environmental, human rights, labour and public advocacy groups have not.
The TPP is a 12-nation trade pact that includes the US, Japan, Australia, Canada, Malaysia, Peru, Brunei Darussalam, New Zealand, Chile, Singapore, Vietnam and Mexico.
The White House argues it is essential to counterbalance China’s attempts to create its own trade bloc in Asia.
“The view of the president is that if the United States is not the one that is engaging in this economically dynamic region of the world, that we are essentially ceding ground to China,” said Josh Earnest, White House Press Secretary, during a pitch for the deal in May.
“China will most assuredly try to write rules of the road that further disadvantage American companies who are trying to do business in this region.”
Those who have seen the deal aren’t permitted to disclose details. So far, the only provisions that have come out publicly have been from WikiLeaks.
In November, 2013 they managed to get their hands on a copy of some of the proposals and the reaction was swift and angry.
As Al Jazeera reported last year , medical associations including Doctors Without Borders say the protections for pharmaceutical manufacturers, particularly those in the US, would kill generic competition in TPP countries, making it more difficult for poor citizens to get drugs for diseases like AIDS and cancer.
Similar protests have come from labour, environmental and consumer groups following the WikiLeaks disclosures.
Courtenay Lewis from the Sierra Club, which is opposing the deal, says if the leaked provisions on the environment go through there is nothing protecting endangered species or preventing corporations from dealing in illegal timber.
The secrecy shrouding the TPP was one of the primary reasons for a massive setback last Friday for the Obama administration.
Democratic opponents in the US Congress, led by House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, voted down a trade assistance bill that would have given President Obama the authority to finalise the details with TPP countries.
The US House of Representatives will consider a new bill on Thursday to give him the authority. But many Democratic politicians are from states that saw job losses after the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was enacted in 1993 and US companies move to Mexico. They’re also disillusioned by the lack of transparency and it’s doubtful they’ll give the president another chance.
Since March, lawmakers have been allowed to view the full text in two highly-secure Capitol Hill reading rooms where classified material is often available for those who have the proper clearance. But anyone who sees the TPP text is not allowed to take notes or disclose anything they read, which has upset some lawmakers.
Democratic Congressman Alan Grayson, who has criticised the TPP, has refused to even go to the reading room simply because there’s no point.
“You can’t do anything with the information,” says his spokesman Ken Scudder. He did, however, have a meeting with Ambassador Michael Froman, the lead US trade negotiator, who visited him for an hour on Capitol Hill and showed him an unattributed, “small part of the overall agreement,” according to Scudder. But his staff was not allowed to join him.
Critics argue industry groups have had much better access.
Mark Grayson, spokesperson for the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, a leading TPP proponent, confirmed their members have seen the details of the TPP and have been part of the consultation process since the beginning through the Industry Trade Advisory Committees that counsel the White House.
Those committees are overwhelmingly dominated by industry organisations and multinational corporations like Boeing, Apple, Caterpillar and Johnson & Johnson.
Other advisory committees include labour and environmental groups who, according to the White House, “receive full and equal access to US negotiating proposals and work with our negotiators in an interactive process that includes regular updates.”
But those “updates”, according to Thea Lee from the American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO), consist of summaries and rarely include anything outside of the US negotiating position.
“Summaries are not useful,” says Lee. “I want to see the exact language.”