Obama’s ‘fast-track’ trade push faces congressional delays
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Legislation to grant President Barack Obama “fast-track” authority to negotiate trade deals and ease their passage through Congress has been delayed until the autumn – dashing hopes that an agreement could be struck quickly and without a fight.
“Fast-track” authority, which last lapsed in 2007, was created in the mid-1970s and has been, in effect, on and off since then. It gives US leaders the power to negotiate the details of trade deals and allows them to be approved by Congress on an expedited schedule with simple majority votes and no filibusters, delays or amendments.
The Obama administration has described “fast track” – officially dubbed Trade Promotion Authority (TPA) – as a “critical tool” to ensure passage of its ambitious second-term trade agenda. It is now negotiating separate trade agreements with the EU and 11 Pacific rim nations, known as the TransPacific Partnership. These TPP talks could be concluded by the end of this year, while an EU accord is slated to be sealed by the end of 2014, US officials have said.
The Senate finance committee was originally due to take up a bill in June. But congressional aides said the committee was still struggling to reach a consensus and talks were now expected to drag into the autumn. Top trade staffers from the House ways and means committee are also participating in the negotiations.
Congressional aides close to the talks on TPA say the delay has been a function of the complicated nature of the legislation, which sets negotiating objectives for the president on trade.
The last TPA bill was crafted in 2002, and the global economy has changed significantly since then. New measures are being added on how the US would like to treat state-owned enterprises, intellectual property protections, and cross-border data flows, which have acquired greater political sensitivity since the revelations of surveillance programmes by the US National Security Agency.
“There has been no shortage of technical work to be done, and that has taken longer than we had hoped. But we’ve made good progress. We’ll continue to chip away though August recess,” said one Democratic Senate aide.
A Republican aide said: “They are going through a lot of issues – they’re making progress.”
Corporate lobbyists, who have been pushing for a quick and uncontroversial approval of TPA, say they are still confident the talks will be successful.
“We are seeing signs of good support and momentum for TPA legislation in Congress and from the administration,” said David Thomas, vice-president for trade policy at the Business Roundtable, representing big blue-chip companies.
However, the legislation still faces potential stumbling blocks.
Democrats are pushing for more stringent labour and environmental standards in the talks, which Republicans are likely to resist.
Some liberal Democrats would also like to see if they can include some measures on currency included in TPA, forcing the administration to take a tougher position on Japan and its weakening currency in TPP talks – something the US auto industry has been pushing for.
In addition, Max Baucus, Senate finance committee chairman, wants to see a worker training programme called Trade Adjustment Assistance passed alongside TPA, which some Republicans are sceptical of.
Meanwhile, some Republicans grumble that the Obama administration could help move the process forward by campaigning more actively for TPA.
They argue that US trade negotiators are hampered by the lack of TPA because their credibility with trading partners is undermined if there is not an iron-clad guaranteed of a smooth congressional consideration.
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