Global trade deal talks on fast track

Completion of a bill that would help smooth the passage of trade deals through Congress is looming large as the Obama administration takes a more aggressive tack on expanding global trade.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) and House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp (R-Mich.) are closing in on an agreement to renew Trade Promotion Authority (TPA) as U.S. trade officials ramp up their efforts to complete an Asia-Pacific deal by year's end. 

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Congressional consideration of a fast-track authority bill grows even more important with leaders of the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), set to meet in Singapore beginning Dec. 7 with the aim of wrapping up an agreement. 

Christopher Wenk, an international policy expert at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce said TPA renewal is critical to finalizing the long-awaited Asia-Pacific deal and enhancing the U.S. negotiating position.

"In more ways than one the need for TPA is more front and center with these TPP talks in Singapore," he said. "This is a very important meeting."

On top of the TPP meetings, the U.S. and European Union will begin their third round of negotiations later in December on the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP).

Moving forward without fast-track authority could derail the trade deals, which would create two of the world's largest trading zones. 

"During TPP's three years of talks, TPA has always been elephant at the door and it's the tool needed to ensure and finalize other trade deals," Wenk said.

Trade experts say that a fast-track authority bill could be introduced in December.

Linda Dempsey, vice president of international affairs at the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM), said TPA is a top priority on the trade agenda and that lawmakers are getting close. 

"We're still hoping to see a bill by the end of the year and we're pressing to get there," she said. 

"To really get a trade agreement done through Congress we're going to need to see trade promotion authority." 

Wenk said that while Congress works on a bill, the Obama administration has been operating as if TPA is in effect by consulting Congress and other stakeholders. 

"We'd love to see a bill before the end of the year but it's not in our control, it's up to Baucus and Camp on how they want to proceed," he said. 

Congress last passed a fast-track bill 11 years ago, which was crafted by Baucus, but it expired in 2007. 

"Chairman Camp has long been a supporter of TPA and has been working in a bipartisan, bicameral manner to produce legislation as soon as possible," said Sarah Swinehart, a spokeswoman for Camp.  

"TPA is essential to move forward trade negotiations that will create jobs and open new markets in the U.S.”

Baucus has been equally positive of late, saying that he and Camp are nearing a deal. He said earlier this year that he hoped to have a bill out by June. 

Even if a bill is introduced by Camp and Baucus in December, Dempsey argues that it could take a bipartisan herculean effort to push it through Congress next year. 

That would require an all-hands-on-deck push from the business community, the White House and every department involved in trade, from Commerce to State and the U.S. Trade Representative to get a bill through both chambers. 

But forces of congressional opposition have waylaid progress, so far. 

The bipartisan effort to produce a TPA bill comes amid protestations from a group of House Democrats and Republicans who say they oppose giving the White House fast-track authority.

Dempsey cautions that without TPA, "Congress has a much smaller role in all of this" because it allows the president to negotiate trade deals with congressional input. 

She said there are plenty of lawmakers on Capitol Hill, such as Camp and Baucus, who do understand its importance and will work to shepherd it through both chambers. 

Meanwhile, President Obama and U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman have reiterated that they hope to get a TPP deal done by the end of the year, a goal that still may be out of reach considering the hefty major issues that are unresolved. 

But Froman has clarified that the United States won't sacrifice substance to meet the deadline for the end of negotiations. 

Even if trade negotiators can't reach an agreement by the end of the year, it won't be for lack of effort.

Vice President Joe Biden will head to Japan, China and South Korea next week to discuss a broad range of issues, notably economic policy and completion of the TPP.

Senior administration officials say an important part of Biden's agenda in Japan is talking with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe about economic structural reforms. 

"It's extremely important both to Japan and to the TPP that Japan should follow through on the so-called “third arrow” of Abenomics and make structural reforms," anofficial said. 

"And that is also of course critical to the United States to move to get more access to Japan's markets."

Biden will likely pick up where the two leaders left off in their most recent meeting in Singapore where they discussed the role that TPP can play going forward in "creating a new high-standard trade agreement for the region and for 40 percent of the world's economy." 

"And the Vice President looks forward to picking up on that conversation in this period where discussions about bringing TPP to a positive conclusion at the end of the year."

Froman has a full agenda ahead of the Singapore round of talks with stops in Tokyo, Vietnam and Malaysia, all TPP countries. 

He also will swing through Bali, Indonesia to participate in the World Trade Organization (WTO) Ministerial Conference.  

In fact, most of the Cabinet including Treasury Secretary Jack Lew and Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker have toured through the Pacific Rim talking economic issues and increased trade, a reflection of the importance of global trade to the Obama administration.

"This trip will cap a very active year of engagement by this administration in the Asia Pacific region," an official said. 

"The United States is a resident Pacific power, we’re here to stay, and we’re actively engaged on the full spectrum of issues in the region."