Support builds for renewing Obama’s trade-agreement fast-track authority

Pressure is building behind a push for Congress to renew President Obama's authority to negotiate trade agreements amid an expanding global agenda.

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Efforts by business groups and lawmakers to renew trade promotion authority have picked up pace in the nearly two weeks since Obama announced plans to start negotiations this summer on a trade deal between the United States and the European Union (EU).

John Engler, president of the Business Roundtable (BRT), said trade is one of the only issues getting bipartisan backing in Congress and now is the time to get moving to renew and enhance fast-track authority, which expired in 2007.

"I think the president has a strong bipartisan majority in Congress on most trade issues," Engler told reporters on Thursday.

“As divided as the government is, when it comes to trade, we’ve gotten quite a few things done on a bipartisan basis. None of these were easy, but they did get done.”

Congress overcame years of hurdles and passed three long-delayed trade deals with South Korea, Colombia and Panama in 2011. Lawmakers also came together in December to normalize trade relations with Russia while agreeing to include human-rights language.

"If you're trying to change the tone in this town, this is one way," Engler said. "The case against it is pretty weak."

Engler said the authority is imperative in showing potential trading partners that the United States is serious about not only forging new agreements but moving them quickly through Congress.

Whilte the authority isn't technically needed to begin or end trade talks, it does give Congress a way of framing the debate and influencing the agenda in conjunction with the White House while, usually, signaling support for a particular agreement.

The former Michigan governor said he is encouraged that a growing number of lawmakers, including Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) and House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp (R-Mich.) have said they want to get a fast-track bill done.

"There is good momentum coming out of the last Congress for trade promotion authority," said David Thomas, BRT's vice president for trade.

"It's an important tool" that Thomas said should not only guide pending deals — U.S.-EU, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and a potentially broad services agreement with 20 trading partners in Europe — but provide a framework for future free-trade agreements while providing an opportunity to debate long-standing problems with trade.

“It’s something that I wish we didn’t have to keep renewing,” Engler said.

U.S. Chamber of Commerce officials also said recently that any renewal must be a broader, multiyear bill that covers more ground since the last version was written in 2002.

The push also reflects the business community's support and belief that the United States can forge ahead on TPP and a U.S.-EU deal, among others.

Engler said his members, many of the nation's top chief executives, are "very encouraged" by the announcement on the U.S.-EU trade deal that they say will "set an example" for the rest of the world.

He also is optimistic that negotiators can complete work on the TPP this year.

“We think that’s a sure way to strengthen the economy," he said.

Despite the stronger push from business groups, Engler said the effort needs the clear backing of Obama — the president usually asks Congress to grant him the authority — and that means nominating a replacement for U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk, who is heading into his final week on the job.

Engler, who said recently that he thought a nomination was imminent — is sticking with his prediction that Obama will choose top White House official Jeffery Zients, who has headed up the Office of Management and Budget.

He is still hoping a nomination will happen soon.

“We need the person in place and they need to get busy.”