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Now that the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations are done, it's worth looking beyond the hoopla and hyperbole.

No, the 12-country Pacific Rim pact is not the largest trade deal in history, as Prime Minister Stephen Harper insisted. That distinction belongs to the 1994 creation of the World Trade Organization, spanning 161 countries and virtually all of the global economy.

The TPP will instead encompass 40 per cent of world gross domestic product, including the largest and third-largest economies, (the United States and Japan).

The deal is not even the most important deal Canada has ever done. That honour arguably belongs to the 1988 Canada-U.S. free-trade agreement, later folded into the North American free-trade agreement (NAFTA). Nearly 80 per cent of our exports go to the United States and Mexico, and 58 per cent of imports come from these countries.

The TPP's significance for Canada is mainly defensive – namely, preserving the country's export market share in Japan, Vietnam, Malaysia and Singapore, while also maintaining its competitiveness inside North America. Canada made concessions to join, but stands to lose much more if it were not included.

Perhaps most significantly, the TPP could take a long time to become a reality, perhaps as long as years. And there is a not-insignificant chance that the agreement will die altogether.

Yet, the greatest threat isn't a Canadian story.

The biggest hurdle facing the TPP is in the U.S. President Barack Obama narrowly secured a mandate from Congress to negotiate the deal – so-called trade promotion authority. With slightly more than a year left in office, Mr. Obama must now roll the dice again to get Congress to ratify it.

Already, several key members of Congress, who gave Mr. Obama a mandate to negotiate, say they don't like the looks of the deal he negotiated. A swing of just a handful of votes could torpedo ratification. He will need the support of both Republicans and Democrats. And he'll be seeking approval in the middle of a presidential campaign, in which the Republican and Democratic front-runners (Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton) are already trashing the deal.

In marked contrast to Mr. Harper's triumphalism, U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman acknowledged the tough slogging ahead by characterizing this week's conclusion of TPP negotiations as "an important first step."

Many of the same issues that troubled negotiators are predictably proving contentious in Congress – including those having to do with autos, drug patents and dairy.

Ford Motor Co., for example, is pushing Congress to reject the deal because it doesn't have any provisions to address what it says is currency manipulation by Japan and other countries. Other members of Congress have expressed concern about the lower domestic content rules for vehicles in the TPP.

Lawmakers from major dairy-producing states, such as Wisconsin and New York, are also unhappy that Canada is opening just 3.25 per cent of its market to duty-free imports. They had wanted more new access in Canada and Japan than they would lose to New Zealand and Australian imports at home.

A clause in the agreement that bars cigarette companies from using a dispute-settlement mechanism to challenge anti-smoking laws could peel off as many as a dozen votes in tobacco-growing states, such as Virginia, Maryland and North Carolina.

A clause in the deal that gives a minimum of five years of patent protection to a new class of drugs known as biologics – biological products that include vaccines, blood and products that combine natural substances – is also contentious. Senate finance committee chairman Orrin Hatch has said anything less than 12 years won't fly.

A vote in Congress may not happen until next April, when the race to succeed Mr. Obama as president is in full swing.

There are good reasons for the rest of the world to be wary of the TPP – although they won't have a say in whether the deal gets done.

Some trade experts see the TPP as a model and a stepping stone to an eventual global trade deal at the WTO. Mr. Obama envisions the TPP as a counterweight to China's growing clout, by rewriting the rules for trade in Asia.

But it's equally possible that the TPP will remain an exclusive club. And that would leave many important emerging and developing economies on the outside, looking in, including China, India and Brazil.

The agreement reached in Atlanta marks the beginning of the debate on all these issues.

Stay tuned.

Follow Barrie McKenna on Twitter: @barriemckennaOpens in a new window

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