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President Barack Obama was often criticized in his first term for moving too slowly on trade, but now his chief negotiator is pressing Congress to pick up the pace as the White House pushes to conclude a landmark trade deal in the Asia-Pacific by the end of the year.
“We think it would be good to get TPA [trade promotion authority] as soon as possible with as broad bipartisan support as possible,” U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman told POLITICO in an exclusive interview this week.
Obama to submit trade agreements to Congress for straight up-and-down votes without any amendments, giving other countries confidence that any deal they reach with the White House wouldn’t be picked apart by U.S. lawmakers unhappy with one provision or another.
But there is little momentum in Congress toward passing the legislation.
Weeks of drama over Republican attempts to defund Obamacare and the resulting government shutdown also have kept trade off the congressional agenda, while Obama has identified the budget, farm bill and immigration legislation as his priorities for the rest of the year.
Congress last passed TPA legislation in 2002, clearing the way for the Republican administration of former President George W. Bush to negotiate trade deals with more than a dozen countries.
Obama waited until negotiations on the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement had been going for more than three years before formally asking Congress for the legislation.
Senate Republicans tried to pass the bill two years ago but were blocked by Senate Democrats who said the time was not yet right to take up the measure.
Now, Froman and his team at the office of the U.S. Trade Representative are pushing to finish the TPP talks by the end of the year, putting pressure on Congress to move a TPA bill to set the stage for the final phase of talks.
However, months of technical-level talks between Democratic and Republican staff on the committees of jurisdiction in Congress still have not produced a bill, even though both Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) and House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp (R-Mich.) set a goal of passing TPA this year.
Some Republicans complain the White House is not doing enough to build support for legislation among congressional Democrats, a charge that Froman rejects.
“I’m up on the Hill for a significant portion of every week, meeting with Democrats and Republicans in the House and the Senate, in groups and individually, precisely on that issue. I think we are certainly carrying our share of the weight on this one,” Froman said.
But “it will be easier to have that kind of engagement when there’s an actual bill, and that’s really up to the Finance Committee and the Ways and Means Committee to produce.”
Asked whether the administration could finish the TPP talks without fast-track authority, Froman only said: “We’re working on both tracks and expect and hope to see progress and success on both.”
A ‘partnership’ bill
In addition to shielding trade deals against amendments, TPA gives lawmakers the chance to set detailed negotiating objectives for trade agreements and to establish procedures for moving the deals through Congress.
“Trade promotion authority, you know, really is Congress’ way of telling the administration what it should do with trade policy,” Froman said. “It is a manifestation of the partnership between Congress and the executive on trade policy and really gives Congress a very important and meaningful role in both the substance and the process of trade negotiations.”
But even if Finance and Ways and Means leaders agree on a joint bill, history shows that winning approval of fast-track trade legislation can be a difficult fight.
In 2002, about two dozen House Democrats voted for TPA legislation, which barely won approval after a bitter fight. In the late 1990s, former President Bill Clinton was unable to win the legislation, even though the trade-friendly Republican Party controlled the House as it does now.
Froman said he hoped the administration’s focus on achieving a “higher-standard” agreement in both the TPP talks and another proposed trade agreement with the European Union would attract strong Democratic support for TPA.
“I think we’re all focused on ensuring that we’re able to secure that authority and secure it with the broadest possible bipartisan support,” Froman said.
Meanwhile, leaders from the 12 TPP countries — the United States, Japan, Canada, Mexico, Australia, New Zealand, Peru, Chile, Singapore, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei — reaffirmed at a recent meeting in Bali their desire to finish the pact this year, though the government shutdown forced Obama to stay home from the event.
“Now that’s an ambitious objective. We all recognize that. And certainly the substance of the negotiations is going to ultimately dictate the timetable. But all the countries are working, in some cases literally around the clock, at different levels and in different groups, bilaterally, plurilaterally around various issues with that objective in mind,” Froman said.
As the talks draw to a close, all the countries face difficult decisions in balancing the new business opportunities they hope to gain from the pact against the cries of sensitive domestic interests that want to be shielded against increased competition.
“It’s our jobs to weigh those interests and try to come up with a balanced package. And of course, each of the 11 other countries have their own perspective on these questions,” Froman said. “What that means is that, you know, no one is going to get 100 percent of what they are looking for in 100 percent of the chapters” of the agreement.
‘Increasingly worried’ about WTO talks
Meanwhile, Froman will return to Bali in early December for a meeting with top trade officials from the other 158 members of the World Trade Organization. That has prompted speculation TPP trade ministers could meet on the sidelines of the WTO ministerial to try to close the TPP deal. But Froman declined to give odds for that.
“It’s possible that ministers will get together again between now and the end of the year, but we haven’t made any firm decisions as to when and where that might take place,” he said.
The United States’ main focus at the December meeting is on a possible “trade facilitation” deal among all 159 WTO members, aimed at making it easier to move goods across borders by reducing red tape and regulation, along with other components on agriculture and development as part of a final Bali package, he said.
Froman praised new WTO Director General Roberto Azevedo for “energizing” negotiations at WTO headquarters in Geneva but expressed concern a deal might not be reached.
“We are increasingly worried that not enough progress is being made [in the negotiations] and the pace isn’t sufficient to ensure that there is a completed, strong, binding trade facilitation agreement by the time of Bali, and that has to be part of the core Bali package,” Froman said.
Azevedo has cast the Bali meeting as a watershed moment for the WTO, whose full membership has not agreed on any trade liberalizing package since it was created nearly 20 years ago.