• Reuters, Kyodo

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The chances that U.S. negotiators can bring home a strong trade deal with Asia-Pacific countries are now much better than 50-50, U.S. President Barack Obama said on Thursday.

Obama said he was also confident the administration could make a “strong case” in Congress for a Trans-Pacific Partnership deal covering nearly 40 percent of the world economy.

“I’m much more optimistic about us being able to close out an agreement with our TPP partners than I was last year,” he said at a meeting of the President’s Export Council.

“It doesn’t mean it’s a done deal, but I think the odds of us being able to get a strong agreement are significantly higher than 50-50.”

The negotiators for the TPP initiative may meet again in January in the United States or Australia, negotiation sources said Thursday.

Ongoing talks in Washington are expected to wrap up Friday, whereupon they will likely release a plan for future meetings toward an early signing of the deal, the sources said.

But the trade officials, including chief TPP negotiators, are expected to refrain from going into detail about the next ministerial meeting, where the United States, Japan and 10 other countries will try to reach a broad agreement to the initiative, they added.

Akira Amari, Japan’s TPP minister, said earlier this week the TPP members may hold the next ministerial meeting in early 2015 if the chief negotiators’ meeting makes major progress in contentious sectors such as market access.

A U.S. trade magazine reported Thursday that the envisioned next round of talks by chief TPP negotiators and other officials will take place from Jan. 26 to Feb. 1 at an undecided location in the United States.

The other 10 countries are Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore and Vietnam.

A senior Chilean official said last week the talks should be finalized in the first quarter of 2015. Any agreement would need to be ratified by the U.S. Congress.

Countries had hoped to wind the deal up last year, but the United States and Japan have been in a stalemate over market access for U.S. farm exports.

Darci Vetter, chief agricultural negotiator of the Office of U.S. Trade Representative, told an event in Washington that negotiations on tariffs on farm produce have since made progress and entered their final stage.

Obama said the administration would work with Congress to approve fast-track authority, which limits lawmakers to a yes-or-no vote on trade deals in exchange for setting negotiating objectives. He did not give details on timing.

Some lawmakers in Obama’s own Democratic Party oppose fast-track, worried about the impact of trade on jobs. Also, some conservative Republicans oppose fast-track, saying it delegates too much power to the White House.

But many trade experts expect Republican victories in midterm elections will give trade bills an easier ride through Congress from next year.

“The dynamics really don’t change in terms of the number of votes in the House and the Senate that are there to be gotten for a good trade deal but we have to make the case and I think we can make a very strong case,” Obama said.

One focus of criticism has been proposals allowing companies to take cross-border legal action against governments, for example over laws aimed at limiting smoking.

Obama said U.S. companies should comply with local public health and safety rules but those should not be discriminatory or used as a “ruse” to keep investors out.

“Those are issues that I think can be negotiated,” he said.

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