WASHINGTON (AP) — Legislation key to President Barack Obama's agenda to boost exports to the fast-growing economies of the Asia-Pacific is being welcomed by business but faces 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 leading 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 traditionally are 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.
The bill is also intended to apply to a trade pact under negotiation with the 28-member European Union.
But Rep. Sander Levin, 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.
"The vast majority of Democrats feel that we need to have a much more active, vigorous role for Congress in addressing trade issues, and there needs to be much more transparency and issues like currency have to be addressed," Levin told reporters.
Lawmakers of both parties 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, and establishes new goals for U.S. negotiators on digital trade, and updates those on protection of intellectual property and labor and environmental standards. They say the legislation would allow every lawmaker access to the negotiations.
"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.
U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman said he expected to have a "robust conversation" with lawmakers about how trade agreements should be negotiated and the role of Congress in that process.
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.
"To get the best possible deal, I think they are going to need fast track," said Susan Schwab, who served as U.S. trade representative during the presidency of George W. Bush.
But fast track has never been popular among unions and many Democrats.
Some 151 Democrats and 22 Republicans — out of 435 members of the House — have already come out in opposition to renewal of fast track unless Congress has a more "meaningful role" in forging trade agreements. Sizeable numbers of Democrats have also come out against the TPP, principally because they argue it will cost American jobs.
Schwab said quick passage of fast track would depend on how hard the president pushes for it and whether the Democratic leadership in Congress will get behind it.
"There's a lot of support from the Republican side, if not unanimity. The White House needs to get out there and get Democratic leadership in the House and Senate to be pro-active, and then it could move, fairly rapidly," she said, but added that midterm elections in November won't make it easier to win Democratic backing.
The fast track bill would renew the president's trade promotion authority for up to seven years.
The business community, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, quickly voiced its support Thursday, as did some Democrats.
Five House members from the New Democrat Coalition said the bill made key improvements to the 2002 fast track, and would help in efforts eliminate unfair barriers for American companies.
But five senators appeared to voice doubts, urging the administration to work directly with Congress before considering renewal of fast track, and calling for U.S. trade negotiators to be more accountable to Congress.