Last week, Malaysian authorities announced the discovery of 28 sites that they suspected had served as human trafficking camps. Days earlier, they had found 139 grave sites, many apparently filled with the bodies of dead migrants who had been smuggled from Burma; survivors recounted months of being penned in cages while friends and relatives died around them of disease and starvation.

The revelations seemed to contradict government denials that such camps existed on Malaysian soil, and they presented just the kind of thorny issue that has made negotiations so difficult over over a massive trade deal between the United States and 11 other nations around the Pacific Rim.

Back in Washington, American legislators are trying to use the proposed trade accord as leverage to stop these recurring instances of human trafficking — but the White House is pushing back, in an attempt to smooth the already rocky path towards final ratification.

The dispute highlights the difficulty President Obama faces in balancing a desire to aggressively promote human rights with the need to pull a fractious coalition of nations across the finish line — even when that puts him at odds with members of his own party.

Negotiations on the Trans-Pacific Partnership, an expansive agreement that encompasses everything from Internet policy to financial services, have been underway for much of his presidency. Trade between the parties accounts for nearly 40 percent of global commerce, and an agreement could become an important part of Obama’s economic legacy. But some of the nations that would be party to the accord have poor track records of respecting basic rights, leading many to argue that the United States should force them to improve before granting the economic privileges a trade deal confers.

Malaysia had been on the State Department’s watch list of countries with trafficking problems until 2014, when repeated failures to take corrective action landed the nation a spot on a U.S. list of bad actors, along with Iran, Syria and North Korea. Migrant women recruited to work from countries like Cambodia and Thailand often find themselves compelled into prostitution, and whole industries depend on forced labor — 28 percent of workers in electronics production are there against their will, according to a 2014 report commissioned by the U.S. Labor Department.

That’s why Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) resorted to excluding Malaysia from the trade pact, which will lower tariffs on most traded goods to zero, until it gets itself off the State Department’s list of worst cases. He attached an amendment to a Senate bill that denies expedited consideration of any trade agreement that includes countries on that list, meaning the Trans-Pacific Partnership essentially couldn’t clear Congress with Malaysia as a party.

From the White House’s perspective, that would be problematic. President Obama has argued that keeping countries like Malaysia in America’s economic orbit, rather than China’s, is geopolitically essential — especially when it comes to control of trade routes like the Strait of Malacca, where Malaysia’s cooperation is critical. Plus, the U.S. trade representative says that it’s hard enough for some of these countries to make the legal changes that the agreement will eventually require. Malaysian President Najib Razak is facing domestic political difficulties already, and putting up even higher hurdles to ratification might mean the country never gets there at all.

Ways and Means Committee chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) stepped in to broker a compromise, reflecting the scrambled politics of trade policy, where Congress’ Republican leadership is allied with the president against members of his own party. Ryan committed to a legislative maneuver that would allow Malaysia to remain part of the pact, as long as the secretary of state certifies that the country is taking “concrete steps” to combat trafficking. That way, the administration says, Malaysia would see some benefits sooner for taking politically difficult action to solve the problem.

"We believe the best approach to our goal of combating trafficking is to provide a pathway to these countries that will actually result in meaningful steps being taken,” said a spokesman for the U.S. trade representative.

However, Rep. Sandy Levin (D-Mich.), the Ways and Means Committee ranking Democrat who has taken the lead in trying to make sure the Trans-Pacific Partnership has labor standards that would actually be enforced, says that Malaysia must be required to get its act together in advance, to make sure it happens at all.

“Instead of being satisfied with a letter that says that actions are being taken, Congress should insist that Malaysian laws and practices change to meet international standards before we vote,” Levin said in a statement. "The American public would be shocked to know that ways are being sought to let Malaysia participate in and benefit from a trade agreement without addressing such horrendous worker rights abuses.”

Human rights groups are split on the question of whether it makes sense to allow the State Department — which, after all, is an arm of the White House — to decide what qualifies as adequate progress. The Alliance to End Slavery and Trafficking, a U.S.-based coalition of organizations that work on migrant rights issues, expressed support for the compromise. But Human Rights Watch, an international nongovernmental watchdog group, says that with the huge amount of political pressure around concluding the trade negotiations, simply allowing the State Department to decide whether Malaysia passes muster could result in no significant change at all.

"Our concern is, instead of getting serious about fighting trafficking, they work together to come up with words as opposed to deeds as concrete steps,” says Human Rights Watch Asia Advocacy Director John Sifton. “That stuff never works. I don’t care about plans. Everybody should have plans, but plans don’t mean you’re fighting trafficking.”

"I don’t care about plans. Everybody should have plans, but plans don’t mean you’re fighting trafficking.”
— Human Rights Watch Asia Advocacy Director John Sifton

The Malaysian government is a good example. Human trafficking is illegal, and there is a police unit devoted to tracking down violators. Prior to last week, law enforcement had denied repeatedly that trafficking camps existed. And yet, authorities who announced the discovery of the sites said they appeared to have been in use for five years in a security zone. According to the State Department, the government had not reported any investigations of its own personnel for abetting the problem. And officials there have resisted giving migrants too many rights, for fear of attracting even more to their shores.

Still, there are differences of opinion in the community of Democrats committed to human rights over whether trade is the right way to address human trafficking. Rep. Gerry Connolly, a member of the Lantos Human Rights Commission — essentially the House’s caucus on human rights issues — worries that the trafficking amendment is just another way for opponents to throw up roadblocks.

“It would be a tough vote for me,” Connolly says. “The question is whether this is the right venue to legislate that issue. The con side sees it as another opportunity to derail the legislation, and the pro side is concerned that we not do that.”

Meanwhile, both sides are awaiting the release of the State Department’s annual human rights report, which is mandated by Congress. The report outlines the ways in which parties to the agreement like Malaysia, Brunei and especially Vietnam suppress their citizens’ rights. Trade opponents wonder whether the administration might be delaying it in order to avoid further attention to the problems at a critical time for the trade pact in Congress.

“Highlighting that the US is about to get into a trade agreement with a bunch of egregious human rights violators isn’t particularly confidence building,” says AFL-CIO trade specialist Celeste Drake, “particularly when one is trying to count votes amongst a skeptical House in which many Republicans are not keen on making trade benefits permanent for communist Vietnam.”

Ryan’s strategy for pulling off the trafficking compromise is still a risky one: He plans to do it in a separate customs and enforcement bill that will retroactively amend the trade promotion authority bill, in order to avoid asking the Senate to approve the whole thing again if it goes to conference. Menendez, the provision’s original sponsor, is fine with the compromise language if it goes into the trade promotion authority bill — but strongly opposes the Ryan maneuver. And with so many moving pieces in this complicated measure, there’s no telling what might fall by the wayside.