WASHINGTON The Obama administration plans to ask Congress this year to renew White House "trade promotion authority" so it can finish talks on an Asia Pacific trade pact and pursue other possible initiatives, the top U.S. trade official said on Wednesday.
"We've got to have it," U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk told the House of Representatives Ways and Means Committee, referring to legislation known as trade promotion authority which expired in mid-2007.
Kirk declined to say when the White House would make a formal request, but said it could need the authority by the end of the year because of its goal of concluding the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement with Australia, New Zealand, Vietnam, Chile and four other countries in 2012.
"We'd like (the legislation) to address both TPP and then any other ambitions we might have," Kirk told reporters after the hearing.
Republicans and business groups have pressed the White House to seek renewal of trade promotion authority, which traditionally requires Congress to vote on trade agreements within 90 days and without any amendments.
Representative Kevin Brady, a Texas Republican, said it was "critical" the White House have trade promotion authority so other countries know any agreements they make with the United States will not unravel during debate in Congress.
Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell welcomed Kirk's comments and urged the White House to send up draft legislation and work with congressional leaders to schedule a vote on the measure before the Memorial Day recess in late May.
Many Democrats have qualms about the legislation since it signals White House plans to negotiate more trade agreements. That is a divisive issue within the party because of opposition from labor groups.
The legislation typically also contains detailed negotiating objectives the White House is expected to follow in trade talks. The Obama administration has been using the expired trade promotion authority as guidance for the ongoing Trans-Pacific Partnership talks, but those objectives were crafted in 2002.
Kirk said the administration wanted to work this year with congressional leaders and key committees to craft a "thoughtful bill" that could be approved with bipartisan support.
The Obama administration, which took office in January 2009, has not previously sought trade promotion authority, a tool that former President George W. Bush used to negotiate about a dozen bilateral and regional free trade pacts.
Congress approved the last three of the Bush-era trade deals in October after the Obama administration made various changes to the pacts with South Korea, Colombia and Panama to make them more palatable to Democrats.
Representative Sander Levin, the top Democrat on the Ways and Means panel, said he doubted a trade promotion authority bill would be passed this year.
The 2002 bill took about 18 months to pass.
Kirk also urged Congress to approve "permanent normal trade relations" with Russia to ensure U.S. companies share in the benefits of that country's expected entry into the World Trade Organization in coming months.
That's expected to be a tough vote because Russia is unpopular with many U.S. lawmakers due to Moscow's record on human rights and its foreign policy aims, which often are at odds with the United States.
(Reporting by Doug Palmer; Editing by Anthony Boadle)