Trade chief pitches ‘fast-track’ to Congress

Trade chief pitches ‘fast-track’ to Congress
© Greg Nash

The nation’s top trade official sought Tuesday to smooth the way for passage of major international pacts, reassuring Congress the Obama administration is committed to building bipartisan support for its ambitious global trade agenda. 

Appearing before committees in the House and Senate, U.S. Trade Representative Michael FromanMichael FromanUS will investigate aluminum imports as national security hazard Overnight Finance: WH floats Mexican import tax | Exporters move to back GOP tax proposal | Dems rip Trump adviser's Goldman Sachs payout Froman heads to Council on Foreign Relations MORE said the administration wants to allay concerns held by lawmakers in both parties about handing President Obama trade promotion authority (TPA).

“We want to work on a bipartisan basis to make sure we’re addressing concerns of Democrats and Republicans as we move this forward,” Froman told lawmakers.

The power, also known as fast-track authority, is seen as a crucial tool in the completion of two pending trade deals that cover more than half of the world’s economy. Under TPA authority, Congress would be limited to an up-or-down vote on any trade deals that reach Capitol Hill.

Froman called the push a “whole government effort,” moblizing the president and the Cabinet fully to get Congress to approve the TPA and the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Paul RyanPaul RyanDems, not trusting Trump, want permanent ObamaCare fix Kudlow: Trump's tax plan 'a home run' Samantha Bee roasts Trump at mock correspondents' dinner MORE (R-Wis.) pressed Froman to ratchet up efforts to convince Democrats to get on board with fast-track authority as well as the broader trade agenda. 

In response, Froman highlighted the 18 months that he and his trade team have spent canvassing Capitol Hill talking to lawmakers from both parties about trade. 

He said the Cabinet’s fresh efforts should bolster support. 

Republicans on the Senate Finance Committee voiced support for passage of a fast-track bill and sought confirmation from Froman that the president would take the lead.

Froman told Republican Sen. Dan CoatsDan CoatsSouth Korea missile defense online in ‘coming days’ Sanders on skipping WH Korea briefing: 'I did not want to be part of a photo op' Overnight Defense: Senators go to White House for North Korea briefing | Admiral takes 'hit' for aircraft carrier mixup | Lawmakers urged to beef up US missile defense MORE (Ind.) that the president has made his support clear, reflected in his move to employ his entire Cabinet in the effort.

“I have a great deal of support from the president on down, it’s a priority for him,” Froman said. 

Coats said that the president’s call during his State of the Union address a week ago for Democrats and Republicans to back him on trade brought the GOP to its feet faster than any other issue. 

“To get this done it has to be all-in, it has to be above partisan politics, it’s got to be done in a bipartisan way,” Coats said.

Sen. Chuck GrassleyChuck GrassleyComey to testify before Senate Judiciary Committee GOP to kill language exempting staff from new ObamaCare repeal bill House cyber chairman wants to bolster workforce MORE (R-Iowa) suggested the president would have to “work the phone with senators” to guarantee the 60 votes needed to move a TPA bill. 

Ryan made similar comments during his hearing, arguing the debate offers a perfect opportunity to make a good deal on trade while also showing that divided government can work. 

Though some conservatives have raised concerns, many Republicans on both sides of the Capitol have expressed support for the president’s trade agenda, while Democrats, particularly in the House, have argued such pacts hurt the U.S. workforce.

Sen. Ron WydenRon WydenWhat killing net neutrality means for the internet Overnight Tech: Net neutrality fight descends into trench warfare | Zuckerberg visits Ford factory | Verizon shines light on cyber espionage Franken, top Dems blast FCC over net neutrality proposal MORE (D-Ore.) said it is easy to understand why U.S. workers are frustrated, especially when their wages have been stagnating for years. 

“Those who favor a trade agenda that takes on the challenges of a hyper-competitive global economy have a responsibility to make the case that it will work for America’s middle class,” he said. 

Senate Finance panel Chairman Orrin HatchOrrin HatchWhen political opportunity knocked, Jason Chaffetz never failed to cash in Ginsburg pines for more collegial court confirmations Senate's No. 2 Republican: Border tax 'probably dead' MORE (R-Utah), having made fast-track a priority, said that he is convinced that the renewal of TPA “will unleash new energy in our international trade agenda, helping to propel our economy to greater growth and prosperity.”

Hatch said he is working with Wyden, the Finance panel’s top Democrat, and Ryan on crafting a new TPA bill. 

“While there may be some improvements we can make to the bill, I want to make one thing clear — the time for TPA is now,” Hatch said. 

Hatch is said to be aiming to have a fast-track bill ready some time in late February. 

Meanwhile, Froman said the 12-nation TPP is inching closer to the finish line, saying the time frame for completing TPP is “a small number of months.” 

Still, he said the issues that remain are “significant.”

TPP chief negotiators are meeting this week in New York and have said they would like to complete a deal in March.