* Republicans Hatch, Thune worried White House not committed
* Staff on committees already in talks on the legislation
By Doug Palmer
WASHINGTON, April 24 An influential Democratic
U.S. senator said on Wednesday he was working on a bipartisan
bill to boost President Barack Obama's ability to negotiate
trade deals, while Republicans made clear that more White House
involvement is needed to pass the measure.
"I would like to see a bipartisan TPA (trade promotion
authority) bill introduced by June," Senate Finance Committee
Chairman Max Baucus said at a hearing on the Trans-Pacific
Partnership pact, a proposed free trade agreement among 12
countries on both sides of the Pacific.
Approving the measure would help the White House conclude
the three-year-old Asia-Pacific trade talks, which were expanded
on Saturday to include Japan, Baucus said.
The Montana Democrat, who has been a driving force in
Congress behind trade legislation, announced on Tuesday that he
plans to retire at the end of his term next year.
Passing trade promotion authority this year would be a major
achievement, setting the stage for votes on both the
Trans-Pacific Partnership pact and another proposed free trade
agreement with the European Union.
Representative Dave Camp, the Republican chairman of the
House of Representatives Ways and Means Committee, also wants to
move quickly on a bill on trade promotion authority, said a
spokeswoman for that panel.
Karan Bhatia, a former U.S. trade official now a senior
counsel and vice president at General Electric Co,
underscored the need to pass TPA to finish the Trans-Pacific
deal, which is expected to cover about 40 percent of global
"If the goal is to close this agreement done this year, I
think we need to get TPA and we need to get it relatively soon,"
Bhatia referring to the current target of finishing talks on the
Trans-Pacific pact in 2013.
Trade promotion authority, also known as "fast-track" trade
legislation, allows the White House to submit trade deals to
Congress for straight up-or-down votes without any amendments.
The legislation, which expired in 2007, is considered
essential to assure other countries that any deals they reach
with the United States will not be picked apart by Congress.
Staff on both the Senate Finance Committee and the House of
Representatives Ways and Means Committee have already begun work
on TPA legislation, which could face strong resistance from many
Democrats who believe trade deals lead to U.S. job losses.
A long-time critic of trade agreements pounced on Baucus'
statement, signally the potentially tough fight ahead.
"Fast track is inappropriate for the realities of
21st century trade agreements, which go beyond the scope of
traditional trade matters and affects wide swaths of domestic
policy unrelated to trade," said Lori Wallach, director of
Public Citizen's Global Trade Watch.
Senator Robert Casey, a Pennsylvania Democrat, said he had a
"high degree of skepticism" about the Trans-Pacific Partnership
pact because of the potential for job losses in the U.S. auto
sector and other industries.
Obama has not formally requested TPA from Congress, although
acting U.S. Trade Representative Demetrios Marantis told the
Senate Finance Committee last month the administration was
prepared to work with lawmakers on a bill.
Senator John Thune, a South Dakota Republican, said he
worried that White House foot-dragging on the legislation could
lead to delays in concluding the Trans-Pacific talks.
"We know renewal of TPA is likely to be contentious and it's
going to take time, obviously, for Congress to work through the
process," Thune said, urging the White House to put a greater
priority on passing the bill.
Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah, the senior Republican on the
Finance Committee, underscored those concerns.
"I have yet to see any real commitment on the part of the
White House to achieving (TPA's) quick consideration and
approval in Congress," he said.
"A formal request from the administration for TPA would send
a strong signal to our negotiating partners and the proponents
of the Trans-Pacific Partnership that the president is serious
about making sure the rhetoric surrounding the agreement meets
the reality of the negotiating table," Hatch said.