• Bill key to Obama trade push faces Dem opposition
     | January 10,2014
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    US Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker speaks to reporters about a new initiative to promote exports to countries in Latin America.

    WASHINGTON — Legislation key to President Barack Obama’s trade agenda is being welcomed by business, but faces some stiff opposition from Obama’s fellow Democrats.

    A bill to grant the president “fast track” authority for negotiating trade deals was introduced Thursday, co-sponsored by a senior Democrat and two key Republicans.

    Fast track, which was last approved in 2002 and expired in 2007, assures that the administration can negotiate trade deals that Congress can accept or reject but cannot change.

    The administration will be counting on strong support from Republicans, who are traditionally more supportive of free trade pacts than Democrats. Such bipartisanship, however, is a rarity in the divisive political atmosphere that has severely hampered Obama and last fall culminated in a partial government shutdown.

    Approval of fast track would be key to adoption of a trans-Pacific trade agreement the U.S. is closing in on with 11 other nations that in all account for some 40 percent of global gross domestic product. The pact is central to the administration’s policy shift toward Asia, and in its effort to drum up exports to the region’s fast-growing economies.

    The bill is also intended to apply to a trade pact under negotiation with the 28-member European Union.

    But Rep. Sander Levin of Michigan, the top Democrat on the House committee overseeing trade, quickly announced his opposition to the fast track legislation, saying it should stipulate a more active role for Congress, allow greater scrutiny of the negotiations by lawmakers and tackle currency manipulation.

    Many lawmakers have expressed concern that trading partners such as Japan, which is part of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP, undervalue their currencies to boost their exports.

    The bill’s sponsors, however, contend it addresses those concerns. They say the legislation would allow every lawmaker access to the negotiations, and makes currency a key objective for U.S. trade negotiators.

    “This is our opportunity to tell the administration -- and our trading partners -- what Congress’ negotiating priorities are,” Sen. Max Baucus, Democratic chairman of the Senate Finance Committee.

    Baucus, whose recent nomination to become U.S. ambassador to China could leave him little time left to push the bill forward, made the comment in a joint statement with his co-sponsors of the bill. They are Sen. Orrin Hatch, the senior Republican on the finance committee, and Dave Camp, Republican chair of the House Ways and Means Committee on which Levin also sits.

    The Obama administration welcomed the bill as key to implementing its strategy to increase exports and support more American jobs at higher wages.

    “We look forward to working with Democrats and Republicans in Congress throughout the legislative process to pass Trade Promotion Authority legislation with as broad bipartisan support as possible,” a White House statement said.

    Fast track is vital not just for the eventual ratification of a trade pact, but also likely important for finalizing the TPP. It would help assure other nations that Congress will not tinker with what’s agreed upon by U.S. negotiators who will be hoping to wrap up a deal in the coming months — perhaps before Obama visits Asia in April.

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