Hatch presses for Obama's involvement in trade promotion authority

The top Republican on the Senate Finance Committee urged President Obama to help push trade promotion authority legislation through Congress within the next two months.

Sen. Orrin Hatch (Utah) said Thursday that efforts to pass fast-track legislation will require a full-court press from not only the president but from the entire administration.

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“We need to act by June and there must be much more public engagement," he said.

"The administration must make the renewal of trade promotion authority a top priority for congressional action over the next two months,” Hatch said. 

But chances of getting trade promotion authority done within that time frame appear slim. 

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) said he is working on a “smart" track concept aimed at providing a comprehensive framework that will address the complex issues of the global trading scene.

But he told reporters after the hearing that he is still talking to lawmakers and doesn't have a timetable for when a bill might be ready. 

He is expected to make sweeping changes to the TPA legislation introduced in January by former panel Chairman Max Baucus, now ambassador to China. 

Wyden said that the process by which Congress determines what is included in its trade agreements needs to match the U.S. trade policy upgrade and the ambitious agenda. 

Meanwhile, U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman, who has spent countless hours on Capitol Hill discussing the trade agenda, said he is prepared to work with the Senate Finance panel once they have legislation as well as with lawmakers in the House.

Besides Froman, most top White House officials from Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker to Secretary of State John Kerry have spent time with lawmakers over the past several months discussing specifics of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) as well as the importance of passing TPA legislation. 

President Obama recently wrapped up a four-nation swing through the Asia-Pacific with trade was at the top of his agenda. 

Froman said that U.S. and Japanese trade officials continued making inroads in their bilateral parallel talks about eliminating barriers in the agricultural and auto sectors. 

"There's further work to do certainly but we think there was enough progress to give further momentum to the TPP negotiations overall," he said.

While Congress tries to work out TPA legislation, Froman has reiterated that he is staying focused on helping to produce a TPP bill that could gain the support of lawmakers with or without trade promotion authority.

Some of the other nations involved in the TPP talks have expressed concerns that Congress has been unable to pass a measure that would allow any final deal to go through without amendment. They want the assurance that any deal won't be changed in Washington. 

 

Trade promotion authority, which gives Congress an up-or-down vote on trade deals, is being held up by congressional Democrats who are concerned that a potential deal could damage the U.S. economy.

House Ways and Means Committee ranking member Rep. Sandy Levin (D-Mich.) has pushed for more congressional involvement in shaping trade deals before they reach Capitol Hill and could otherwise be unacceptable to many lawmakers.

Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) said he is concerned that even if the committee can put together a bipartisan bil, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) — who has opposed previous trade deals — won’t let it move forward. 

Still, there is a sense that if Wyden can put together fast-track, or smart-track, legislation that is agreeable to Democrats, Reid will allow it consideration on the Senate floor.

Meanwhile, transparency of the TPP contents was another top issue of Wyden's during the hearing.

“There is a need for unprecedented transparency on trade,” he said.

He asked Froman to commit to releasing the text to the public before the president signs a TPP agreement, provide more information on the USTR website and designate a staffer to specifically manage transparency issue.

Froman said the agency is ramping up its efforts to provide more information, which include new Twitter feeds, that can be accessed by the public as trade negotiations continue with the Pacific Rim nations and with the European Union.