Pentagon chief backs Obama trade powers

Pentagon chief backs Obama trade powers
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Defense Secretary Ashton Carter on Monday jumped into the contentious debate over trade policy, urging Congress to approve the “fast-track” authority that President Obama is seeking for a massive Asia-Pacific agreement.

The Pentagon chief said trade policy is closely linked to U.S. military strength and the pivot to the Pacific Rim, and said passage of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) is as “important to me as another aircraft carrier.”

"TPP would deepen our alliances and partnerships abroad and underscore our lasting commitment to the Asia-Pacific," Carter said at Arizona State University’s McCain Institute. "And it would help us promote a global order that reflects both our interests and our values.”

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Carter said that the 12-nation TPP agreement would strengthen key alliances and bolster the nation’s commitment to the Asia-Pacific.

“I never forget that our military strength ultimately rests on the foundation of our vibrant, unmatched and growing economy,” he said.

The Obama administration’s aggressive trade push has created a rift between congressional Democrats and the White House.

Liberal House Democrats — along with labor unions and some environmental and faith groups — argue trade deals are a proven a job-killer and say the new agreements repeat past mistakes.

But the administration is applying heavy pressure on Democrats to go along with passage of a new trade promotion authority (TPA) bill, which would guarantee that any trade deal negotiated by Obama receive an up-or-down vote in Congress. The White House said the powers are needed before the TPP can be completed.

Carter swung through Arizona on his way to Japan — a member of the TPP talks and the world’s third largest economy — where he will discuss the region’s security issues. The visit comes ahead of Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzō Abe’s visit to Washington later this month.

Carter, who is just the latest Cabinet official to wade into the prickly trade debate, argued that time is running out for the United States to complete the TPP.

Without a deal, the United States risks squandering a chance to gain access to Asia's growing markets, he argued. He said the accord, which negotiators are hoping to complete this spring, would increase U.S. exports by $123.5 billion over the next decade.

“We already see countries in the region trying to carve up these markets, forging many separate trade agreements in recent years, some based on pressure and special arrangements rather than openness and principles,” Carter said.

“We all must decide if we are going to let that happen,” he said.

Last week, Agriculture Secretary Tom VilsackThomas James VilsackUSDA: Farm-to-school programs help schools serve healthier meals OVERNIGHT MONEY: House poised to pass debt-ceiling bill MORE said he hoped the fast-track bill and TPP would get done this year, but warned time is running short.

“The window of opportunity for completing trade agreements is tied to this calendar year,” he said Friday.

Congressional leaders on the Senate Finance and House Ways and Means committees are working toward an agreement on TPA, with the potential for action after the Easter recess.

"Negotiations regarding bipartisan, bicameral legislation to renew trade promotion authority continue to make progress,” a Senate Republican aide told The Hill.

“Chairman [Orrin] Hatch, Sen. [Ron] Wyden and Chairman [Paul] Ryan are continuing to talk. Chairman Hatch hopes to move legislation this spring."