WASHINGTON Bipartisan talks on how to speed trade deals through the U.S. Congress are deadlocked and legislation is unlikely to come up for debate before April, a senior Republican senator said on Tuesday, tightening the timeframe to finish a Pacific trade pact before the U.S. election season.
Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch said talks on the trade bill, seen as key to finalizing the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), were "stuck" over Democratic demands to allow unsatisfactory deals to be taken off the fast track.
The bill would allow lawmakers to set negotiating objectives for trade deals in exchange for a yes-or-no vote, giving trading partners confidence Congress will not pick agreements apart.
"I can't agree to something that is going to diminish the power of ... the fast track approach, that's one of the difficulties we are having," Hatch told reporters.
New Zealand Trade Minister Tim Groser said last week the TPP must be agreed by mid-year or face being overtaken by U.S. politics during the 2016 presidential campaign.
Some Republicans have said they will not support the TPP if fast track is not passed before the deal closes.
A sticking point in the congressional talks is whether to allow lawmakers to strip a deal they deem unsatisfactory of its special status, and how high to set the hurdle.
"Would it require a low or high number of senators in order to be able to reject a package?” said Calman Cohen, who heads the Emergency Committee for American Trade, the main coordinating business group on TPP issues.
The top Democrat on the Senate panel, Ron Wyden, said making trade negotiations transparent and subject to congressional oversight would dispel skepticism about trade.
"If you believe deeply in trade and you want more of it, you should want to get rid of all of this secrecy that makes the public so cynical about trade and you should want to have Congress be involved at every step of the way in the negotiations," he said, declining to give details of the talks.
Trade is a hard sell for many Democrats worried about the impact on jobs and a Democratic aide said Wyden's stance aimed to maximize bipartisan support for the bill.
“Senator Wyden is looking for some good, 11th hour concessions that he can get to demonstrate to Democrats that he has gotten the best deal possible," the aide said.
As part of the administration's push to win over Democrats, U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman updated House of Representatives members on the TPP at a caucus meeting on Tuesday, Froman's first briefing for the full caucus.
Froman and National Economic Council Director Jeff Zients also laid out plans for future briefings, Michigan Representative Sander Levin said.
(Reporting by Krista Hughes; Editing by Christian Plumb)