WASHINGTON President Barack Obama has not been forceful enough in pushing for the "fast-track" negotiating authority he needs to move trade agreements swiftly through Congress, two top lawmakers involved with trade said on Thursday.
The Obama administration wants Congress to quickly pass Trade Promotion Authority, or TPA, to help it secure a trade pact with 11 other Pacific Rim nations. TPA, which expired in 2007, would prevent Congress from amending trade deals, an assurance the White House argues is needed to land an agreement.
Representative Devin Nunes, a California Republican who leads a trade subcommittee in the House of Representatives, said Obama had been preoccupied with other issues, such as the new healthcare law and the civil war in Syria, and needed to start building a public case for why TPA is important.
"You cannot give public speeches and not make TPA a priority," Nunes told reporters after delivering remarks on trade at a conference sponsored by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
Democratic Senator Max Baucus, the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, told reporters he agreed with Nunes' assessment.
The Obama administration is in talks to establish a Trans-Pacific Partnership free-trade bloc that would encompass nearly 40 percent of the global economy.
The lawmakers said that if Obama pushed harder, especially to win over his fellow Democrats, he could get fast-track authority soon and complete the TPP.
"I think we're very close to an agreement," Nunes said. "If the president could come out strong, we really could just drive this through the finish line."
Democratic lawmakers are often leery that trade agreements could harm U.S. workers, and many have argued the Obama administration has not consulted closely enough on what it is trying to achieve through the TPP talks.
Lawmakers favoring free trade fear that other countries could form pacts that exclude the United States from important markets if Washington does not move fast enough.
"We need TPA now because the world will not wait for us. Since TPA lapsed in July 2007, other countries have negotiated hundreds of agreements," Baucus told the conference. "If we cannot plant the seeds around us, American companies will lose opportunities, jobs and growth."
Baucus said he was confident a TPA bill would be introduced in Congress before the year ends, but that final action was not likely. With few days left on the congressional calendar, any vote would probably not take place until next year.
(Reporting by Elvina Nawaguna; Editing by Peter Cooney)