Baucus shifts course on fast-track

In a significant change of position, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) now says it is not currently necessary to extend President Bush’s fast-track trade authority.

Baucus, the top Democrat on trade, told reporters Friday there is no immediate need to extend fast-track, which makes it easier for the White House to negotiate trade deals. The authority expires at the end of June and Bush and other administration officials have urged Congress to extend it.

While Baucus believes that the fast track authority is important, he argued that since the administration is not currently negotiating any new trade deals, there is no immediacy to extend the power now.

“Once agreements start to come down the pike, then there will be a need for us to address [fast-track],” Baucus said.

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This is a shift from January when the senator, who has been under pressure in Montana to reject an extension of fast-track, wrote in The Wall Street Journal that Congress should renew fast-track authority with some changes.

In the Jan. 4 column, Baucus wrote that trading partners would not negotiate with the U.S. unless Congress granted the president fast-track.

That is the same argument Bush repeatedly has made in calling on Congress to extend fast-track.

On Friday, Baucus said he is focused on extending another program expiring this year that is meant to help workers negatively affected by trade. The senator stated that it was urgent to pass an improved version of the trade adjustment assistance program with increased healthcare benefits for workers who lose their jobs due to trade. He also said legislation improving this assistance should “travel by itself” and not be attached to bills liberalizing trade.

Montana’s state Senate, which is controlled by Democrats, approved a resolution earlier this year asking Congress to create a replacement for fast-track, which prevents trade deals from being amended. Liberal groups have sought to highlight differences on trade between Baucus, who is seen as generally pro-trade, and freshman Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.).

Baucus said the current authority may be used for four deals the administration has already closed with South Korea, Colombia, Panama and Peru.