U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell signaled Tuesday that the inclusion of anti-tobacco language in a Pacific Rim trade deal being negotiated could influence his stance on a potential agreement covering nearly 40 percent of the global economy.
The Kentucky Republican also said climate change should not surface as an issue in the trade talks involving a dozen nations.
As the Senate's top-ranking leader, McConnell will wield considerable influence when a trade deal comes up for a Senate vote.
In a rare show of teamwork, McConnell recently sided with President Barack Obama to give the president greater authority to negotiate trade deals. The bill gives Congress the right to approve or reject trade agreements but not change them.
McConnell is a free-trade advocate, but indicated that how tobacco and coal are treated would be factors in weighing a trade deal.
"I've said to the trade negotiator that carve-outs for commodities that the administration doesn't like are a bad idea," McConnell said Tuesday after a speech in Shelbyville. "And I hope they won't do that. I've also expressed my opposition to try to turn the trade deal into some kind of climate change agenda, given the depression we have in the coalfields. So we'll see what the final deal looks like. I hope it's one I can support."
Trade ministers from the Pacific Rim nations are trying to reach an agreement aimed at erasing most tariffs and other barriers to trade and investment among participants.
McConnell sees trade deals as benefiting Kentucky manufacturing and agriculture.
While touting trade, he defended two historic Kentucky commodities that are in decline.
Export markets have become increasingly important for the tobacco industry as U.S. consumption has dropped sharply amid health concerns. Kentucky is the nation's top producer of burley tobacco, an ingredient in many cigarettes.
Joe Cain, commodity director for the Kentucky Farm Bureau, said a majority of Kentucky burley is shipped overseas. Any trade deal failing to protect U.S. tobacco would hurt the state's remaining leaf farmers, he said.
"If it's a legal commodity, it needs to be treated fairly," Cain said.
McConnell recently urged U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman to allow tobacco to have the same export potential as other ag products.
"I've made it very clear to the ambassador that they're going to need a lot of Republicans, even with a simple majority, to pass" the Pacific Rim trade deal, McConnell said Monday in Georgetown, Kentucky. "So we're watching it very closely."
Burley, once a $1 billion crop in Kentucky, now generates about $300 million a year for the state's growers.
Meanwhile, Kentucky coal producers could look to overseas markets as domestic use declines.
"Overseas markets could offer new opportunities for Kentucky coal, especially as so many emerging and traditional economies are burning more and more coal for electricity," said Kentucky Coal Association President Bill Bissett.
The state's eastern coalfields have been reeling from sharp declines in production and mining jobs. The downturn has come as Appalachian coal businesses have faced higher production costs and competition from other coal basins and natural gas.
Coal supporters blame tougher environmental regulations by Obama's administration for the industry's slump.