Froman Seeks Fast Action for TPP, Sidesteps Fast-Track Authority Plan

Froman Seeks Fast Action for TPP, Sidesteps Fast-Track Authority Plan

New U.S. trade representative Michael Froman is stepping up pressure on domestic and international negotiators to conclude a sweeping Trans-Pacific Partnership deal this year and move to another potential mega-deal with the European Union.

But when it comes to fast-track authority, likely a necessity to getting any deal through Congress, Froman seems to be leaving it mostly up to Congress, where a bill is nowhere in sight.

Supporters of free trade have criticized the administration, saying Froman and the president himself must push harder so that a fast-track bill, also known as trade promotion authority, can pave the way for an ambitious agenda that would effectively reset Atlantic and Pacific trade relations.

“There’s a lot of interest in moving TPA in Congress, and we in the administration believe TPA is a critical tool, as well,” Froman said Tuesday at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

President Barack Obama spoke in favor of fast-track authority on Tuesday at his speech in Chattanooga, Tenn., on fiscal issues. “I’m asking Congress for the authority to negotiate the best trade deals possible for our workers along with robust training and assistance measures to make sure our workers have the support and skills they need for good jobs,” Obama said.

At the chamber event, Froman said he is engaging with committees in Congress but that fast-track “fundamentally” is a congressional prerogative. “We are certainly ready to engage with them,” he said.

Chamber president Tom Donohue told Froman that his response was “very careful.”

Congressional aides, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Democratic and Republican staffers for the House Ways and Means and Senate Finance committees have been in negotiations over a trade promotion authority bill. But with just days remaining before the August recess, a bill in either the Senate or the House is highly unlikely. Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., had said this spring he wanted to see a bipartisan bill introduced by June.

Many congressional Democrats would rather sidestep the fast-track debate altogether, as it often pits them against their traditional allies in the environmental and labor communities. Those interests have long called for a new trade authority model, one that offers more protections for workers, the environment and for consumers. Critics argue such stipulations would hobble negotiators in talks with other nations.

Finance ranking member Orrin Hatch of Utah has been working with Baucus to develop a consensus on TPA and Hatch said in a speech Tuesday said fast-track offers a test to the Obama administration’s commitment to trade.

“This is a pivotal time in U.S. trade policy,” Hatch said during an American Enterprise Institute briefing on TPP. He commended the administration for moving forward with the TPP talks and for launching negotiations on the EU deal.

But, he said, fast-track will not pass Congress “without the president’s active support.” He added, “Our trading partners will not put their best deal on the table unless they know the United States can pass it.”

Under fast-track, Congress effectively delegates its trade negotiating authority to the administration, sets parameters on trade deals and ensures that pacts receive an up-or-down vote without amendments.

Trade policy experts say if new fast-track authority passes Congress with new demands that negotiators have not been following, it could create havoc on the TPP or any deal.

Despite apparent inaction on Capitol Hill, some small movements on trade policy may indicate lawmakers are working on a way to smooth out the path for fast-track. For example, last week Baucus and Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, introduced a bill (S 1357) renewing trade adjustment assistance, which offers funding for workers who have lost their jobs because of free trade deals.