With Baucus on way out, business groups worry about trade

Business groups are concerned that the imminent departure of Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mt.) could put new trade powers for President Obama on ice.

Baucus authored a Senate bill to give Obama “trade promotion authority,” which would make it easier to pass Obama-negotiated trade bills through the Congress.

ADVERTISEMENT
But the chairman is the only Democrat backing the bill, and he is set this week to be confirmed as U.S. ambassador to China.

His successor will be Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), and it is unclear what steps he will take with the measure, which would prevent trade deals from being amended by Congress.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) expressed his opposition to the bill this week, and suggested that “everyone would be well advised just to not push this right now.”

While Wyden has supported some trade deals in the past, observers say there is little chance he will just pick up Baucus’s bill and move it.

“Anyone who thinks an incoming [chairman] would rubber stamp a bill like this is not deeply engaged in Capitol Hill,” the source said.  “There’s no question he’s going to take a look at this.”

Some argue the introduction of the measure after Baucus’s nomination as U.S. envoy to China, was a timing miscalculation on the part of the White House.

One business source said that instead of generating support for the long-awaited bill, it almost immediately polarized the debate and ignited a flurry of opposition, mostly from Democrats who complained that the measure didn’t go far enough to address the complexities of global trade, which they say have dramatically changed since a “fast-track” bill was last approved in 2002.

TPA gives the president the authority to negotiate trade agreements within a framework of congressional priorities, and gives lawmakers an up-or-down vote when the deals are sent to Capitol Hill. The legislation also imposes timetables on congressional consideration.

The bill is important to Obama because he promised in 2010 to double exports by 2015, and now is negotiating two major deals he wants to submit to Congress under the trade promotion authority. 

But the president faces a difficult task given the almost unanimous Democratic opposition.

Business sources said Democratic support for trade promotion authority has been won in the past by adding trade adjustment assistance — a program that helps workers who have lost their jobs due to trade.

Other possible additions could include provisions targeting currency manipulation, or language giving Congress a stronger role in shaping the trade deals. 

Wooing Democrats could also mean making major changes to Baucus’s bill.

In January, Wyden said his support for TPA “depends on the details.” However, he also touted the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement the administration is negotiating with Asian and Latin American countries. He said the TPP could be a boon for his home state, if it’s done right. 

Wyden has expressed some frustration about White House transparency in the TPP talks and has urged U.S. trade officials to be more forthcoming on its details. 

He also has acknowledged that he understands that his colleagues are frustrated about that issue, too. 

During his State of the Union address, President Obama called on Congress to pass TPA but many Democrats argued that his lack of attention to the issue was an acknowledgment of the difficulty he faces in pushing through a measure. 

Business sources on the record expressed optimism that Wyden would move the bill forward.

Christopher Wenk, vice president of international affairs at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, argued that Wyden understands the importance of trade to the U.S. economy and will work to promote the trade deals.  

“Manufacturers want to see Sen. Wyden move forward with TPA in conjunction with ranking member [Sen. Orrin] Hatch [R-Utah] as soon as possible,” said Linda Dempsey, vice president of international affairs for the National Association of Manufacturers.

“Moving forward with a strong TPA bill will strengthen the hand of U.S. negotiators to get a good deal at this crucial juncture.”