GOP senator: Obama should get 'fast-track' authority on trade

A Republican senator who served as President George W. Bush’s senior trade official will offer legislation Tuesday to make it easier for President Obama to negotiate trade deals.

In an interview, Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) said he will offer a resolution calling on Congress to grant the president trade promotion authority, which would set up rules for new trade deals to be brought to Congress for up-or-down votes.

Trade promotion authority, also known as “fast-track” authority, expired in 2007, and Democrats holding the House and Senate at the time had no interest in extending it for Bush.

Business groups have criticized the U.S. for standing still on trade while other countries, including China, have busily negotiated new pacts together.

Countries are much less likely to negotiate trade deals with the U.S. when the president lacks fast-track authority for fear that trade deals will be changed when they are brought to Congress.

Portman said the resolution will also call on the administration and Congress to move ahead with three pending trade deals with South Korea, Colombia and Panama that were negotiated during the Bush administration, in which Portman served as U.S. trade representative and director of the Office of Management and Budget. That part of the resolution will be non-binding.

Portman said it is important for all administrations to have fast-track authority so that they can negotiate open markets that will lead to increased exports for U.S. companies and new jobs for workers.

He also said he believed a Republican House and Republicans in the Senate would grant the authority to Obama.

“I think that, when explained properly, it’s not so much giving it to the president but giving it to the U.S. so we can open up markets. It can be supported on a bipartisan basis,” he said.

“For me, it’s not about one administration or another, it’s about jobs.”

Obama is expected to call on Congress to approve a trade deal with South Korea in his State of the Union address Tuesday, but it is less clear whether he’ll mention the deals with Colombia and Panama.

All three deals have opposition among consumer groups, labor unions and Democrats, but the Colombia deal is seen as the most controversial. Critics of the legislation have complained that Colombia’s government has not done enough to prosecute and convict people accused of murdering labor activists in that country.

Portman, a freshman senator elected last fall, said Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) will be a co-sponsor on his resolution. 

Editor's note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated which part of the legislation was non-binding.