President Barack Obama on Thursday said he hoped to work with Republicans in Congress on a bipartisan bill supporting White House efforts to wrap up huge trade deals with 11 other countries in the Asia-Pacific region and the 28 nations of the European Union.
“We’re going to need Trade Promotion Authority,” Obama said in remarks to the President’s Export Council, which brings together top corporate leaders, Cabinet officials and members of Congress to discuss ways to expand trade.
The remarks came as the White House is trying to finish talks on the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership with Japan, Vietnam and other Asia-Pacific countries by the end of the year.
“We are very far along in trying to get that deal done,” Obama said.
The United States is also set to hold a second round of talks in October with the European Union on the proposed Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership.
Obama, who was seen as indifferent to trade agreements when first elected in 2008, tied both negotiations to his flagging five-year goal of doubling exports to more than $3 trillion in 2014.
“We’re really focused on how do we keep that momentum going,” he said.
Trade Promotion Authority, also known as TPA or “fast track” trade legislation, would allow Obama to submit the trade deals to Congress for straight up-or-down votes without any amendments. That protection is considered essential to assuring other countries that U.S. lawmakers won’t rip apart any agreement reached by the White House.
Obama did not seek the legislation during his first four years in office, but said he now was counting on Republicans to help pass the bill.
“This is an area where so far at least [Senate Republican leader] Mitch McConnell says he is for it and that’s good. And so we may be able to get some good bipartisan support,” Obama said.
U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman told the Senate Finance Committee earlier this summer that Obama wants renewal of the TPA legislation, which expired in 2007. But Republicans have pressed the president to do more to build support for the bill since many Democrats suspicious of trade agreements are likely to vote against it.
Shortly before Obama’s remarks, the export council approved a raft of policy recommendations for Obama, including a call for action on the trade bill.
“We believe that new TPA legislation is critical to America’s trade leadership in the world,” the group said in one of eight letters to Obama it approved at the meeting.
At the same time, the White House’s aggressive push to wrap up talks on the Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP, agreement by the end of the year is unnerving some business leaders who worry the Obama administration will settle for a deal that falls short of their hopes.
In an open letter to top TPP negotiators meeting this week in Washington, a coalition of nine agricultural, manufacturing and service industry groups said they were “concerned that the TPP as negotiated to date has yet to achieve the level of ambition pledged by the governments.”
Obama did not directly address those concerns in his remarks to the council. But Froman said the administration’s goal in both the Pacific deal talks and in negotiations with the European Union on the proposed Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership was to open new markets for American exports and raise trade standards around the world.
Froman also ticked off other negotiations that could lead to agreements in coming months and years. Those include deals to liberalize services trade and to eliminate duties on an expanded list of information technology goods.
“None of this can happen without Trade Promotion Authority,” Froman said, adding that the administration was working with the Senate Finance Committee and House Ways and Means Committee on a bipartisan bill “to give us the authority to conclude and get … these agreements through Congress.”
An important part of the package also has to be renewal of the federal Trade Adjustment Assistance program to ensure that workers who lose their jobs because of import competition or factories moving overseas “have the skills available” to find new employment, Froman said.
However, many Republicans oppose linking renewal of the program to help displaced workers to a new extension of Trade Promotion Authority.
In addition, efforts by leaders of Senate Finance and House Ways and Means to craft a bipartisan TPA bill have taken longer than expected, prompting speculation the two panels may not be able to produce a package.
Meanwhile, slower growth overseas is threatening Obama’s five-year goal, even as exports set a third consecutive record last year.
Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker told the council that Obama’s National Export Initiative has created a “seismic shift” in the number of U.S. companies involved in exporting.
But acknowledging the economic headwinds that have dramatically slowed export growth in 2013, Pritzker said she has directed her team to take a fresh look at the initiative.
“From there, I think we can refocus our energy on the areas that make the biggest difference and have the greatest impact,” she told the group.
Obama, who spoke after nearly 90 minutes of presentations from officials through the federal government, joked about his own role in promoting big-ticket U.S. exports. Turning to Boeing CEO Jim McNerney, who chairs the export council, Obama said he expected a “gold watch” from the airplane manufacturer at the end of his presidency.
“I know that I’m on the list of top salesmen at Boeing,” Obama said.
The export council also urged the United States to strive at the World Trade Organization’s meeting in Bali in December for a “trade facilitation” deal to cut red tape in customs procedures, which some experts estimate could boost world economic growth by trillions of dollars.
The panel also said it supported the administration’s decision to suspend negotiations aimed at eliminating duties on high-technology goods “until China revises its position” and agrees to shield far fewer items from the proposed cuts.