Republicans press for greater White House involvement on fast-track bill

Senate Republicans criticized the Obama administration for not being more involved in an effort to build support for passage of trade promotion authority (TPA) legislation. 

Senate Finance Committee ranking member Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) was among several Republicans who complained that U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman did not accept an invitation to testify before the panel on Thursday to discuss their recently introduced fast-track legislation. 

ADVERTISEMENT
Hatch said that renewing TPA, is "not an issue where the president can lead from behind."

But that criticism comes amid Froman and other White House officials swarming Capitol Hill to discuss the Obama administration's ambitious trade agenda.

"We are working with Democrats and Republicans to build bipartisan support for TPA legislation," USTR spokeswoman Carol Guthrie told The Hill. 

"Ambassador Froman has spent most of this week on the Hill meeting with members of the House and Senate to advance the President’s trade agenda. Hearing from stakeholders today at the Finance Committee hearing is an important step in that process."

Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), a former trade representative, said he is confident that the White House will get more involved in shaping the TPA bill. 

House Democrats told The Hill on Wednesday that Froman has ramped up discussions with them and has been on Capitol Hill on nearly a daily basis since Congress returned from their holiday break in early January.

Rep. Ron Kind (D-Wis.) said Froman has been "living on Capitol Hill the past two weeks in endless meetings."

In addition to discussing negotiating points on pending trade deals, Kind said the White House is being "very clear" that President Obama is seeking the support of Democrats to pass a fast-track bill, which would smooth passage for any trade deals that reach Congress.

House Ways and Means ranking member Sander Levin (D-Mich.) has not signed onto the TPA measure and is pressing for a more detailed bill that provides specifics for increasing congressional involvement and dealing with other major issues such as currency manipulation. 

Democrats and Republicans have expressed concerns about granting the White House fast-track authority over broader concerns that they will be left out of the process and faced with trade deals they don't like. 

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said this week that he is not sure yet about the bill getting floor time even if the Finance Committee approves it. 

Reid said "there's a lot of controversy" around the bill and that "I'm going to see how that plays out with my caucus and with the Senate."

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.), who has co-sponsored the TPA measure with both Hatch and Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp (R-Mich.), emphasized that his TPA measure does provide a way for all lawmakers to get more involved in the trade negotiating process from start to finish.

The last fast-track bill was completed in 2002 and expired in 2007. 

There seemed to be plenty support for TPA at the hearing although some, like Larry Cohen, president of the Communications Workers of America, argued that TPA needs to include more specific guidelines on a wide range of issues from labor to environment and ensure that they are enforceable provisions. 

Supporters, which include a majority of business groups, argue that the authority is needed to reassure trading partners that trade agreements can move through Congress without changes. 

Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) is among other Democrats arguing that the measure needs to specify the role of Congress and reflect a much broader scope of lawmakers expectations. 

"I think we have to be bolder," he said.