Froman: Obama ‘ready to engage’ with Congress on fast track

President Obama is ready to work with Congress to win fast-track trade negotiating authority, U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman told The Hill on Monday in an exclusive interview.

Froman said the negotiating authority “is a critical tool” but doesn’t need to be in place when the U.S. begins talks with the European Union on a $5 trillion trade deal in two weeks. 

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 Still, he said the Obama administration is “ready to engage” with lawmakers to hash out the authority, which lapsed during former President George W. Bush’s administration and would allow trade deals to move through Congress without amendments.

 It will be tougher for Froman to negotiate the EU deal, as well as the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) with Japan and 11 other countries, without fast-track authority.

 Trading partners are more reluctant to make concessions if they believe a trade deal negotiated by the administration will later be changed by Congress.

 EU leaders have said they are not concerned about the lack of trade promotion authority because they expect it to get done soon. 

 Froman said Obama is committed to working with Congress on trade and suggested several times in the interview that one of his focuses will be on improving the office’s working relationship with lawmakers.

 “I think the one thing we can do a better job of is explaining what we are doing in terms of briefing members of Congress so that they, representing their constituents, can reflect the views of the American public,” he told The Hill in his one of his first interviews since he was sworn in on Friday.

 Froman said his staffers are regularly on Capitol Hill to talk to lawmakers and the committees of jurisdiction to keep them abreast of what is happening in negotiations.

 Calling Congress a “close partner,” Froman said he wants lawmakers to “feel like they have been part of the process” when trade agreements are ready for approval.

 The administration has come under some criticism from Congress for not providing more information about the talks with the Asia-Pacific countries.

 Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), one of only four senators to vote against Froman’s confirmation last week, asked him to release the negotiating text of the deal, but he refused. 

 Froman, who served as a deputy national security adviser on international economic affairs before moving to the trade office, argued doing so would have compromised the U.S. in the talks.

 “The question is how to do that while, at the same time, managing a complex international negotiation,” he said. 

 The high-profile talks with Europe have already been controversial on both sides of the Atlantic, with some lawmakers expressing worries that Europe will use the talks to water down U.S. financial regulations.

 Froman promised that U.S. negotiators would do nothing to weaken the financial law spearheaded by former Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) and former Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.).

 “There’s nothing we’re going to do through trade policy to water down Dodd-Frank,” he said. 

 Froman argued the U.S. must engage globally or face being left behind. 

 “Global supply chains are a fact of life and the question is will American firms and workers be a part of them or not,” he said. 

 “And the goal of our trade policy is to ensure that, as we’re negotiating these agreements, monitoring them, focusing on enforcement, that we can maximize the opportunities for U.S. firms and U.S. workers to be a part of those supply chains.” 

 Obama set a goal in 2010 of doubling exports by 2015 while creating 2 million more export-related jobs. 

 Finishing the Pacific and European deal will be critical if Obama is to reach that target by the end of his time in office.

 “We’re heading in the right direction,” Froman said, despite an ongoing financial crisis in Europe that has sapped strength from the global economy and put a drag on U.S. exports to the region. 

 Another huge challenge for Froman, and a nagging issue for lawmakers, is Japan joining the TPP talks and Tokyo’s willingness to open its markets to more global exports. 

 While Japan is set to join the talks at the end of July, U.S. trade officials are working in parallel on an separate set of trade goals, which will be inserted into the deal’s final text, specifically designed to open up the nation’s auto and insurance markets. 

 The thought is that Japan’s addition would greatly enhance the trade agreement, but concerns abound that Tokyo won’t rise to the occasion. 

 “There is a long history in trying to open Japan’s market,” Froman said. “TPP gives us another opportunity to try to do that. We’re going into this with our eyes wide open.”

 He said U.S. negotiators have made clear to the Japanese that the TPP “will be a high standard agreement” and that they should be “prepared to open their market consistent with those high standards.”

 Froman said he is “psyched” and “humbled” and to take the reins of the trade office.

 “It’s incredibly exciting and for me — I’ve had so much respect for the team of people over here, some of whom I’ve worked with for more than 20 years,” he said. “We’ve grown up together in the trade world, so for me it’s very exciting to have this opportunity,” he said.