U.S. to act soon on trade enforcement bill: lawmaker

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Congress could move quickly this year to give the White House new tools to knock down barriers to U.S. exports and protect U.S. industries from unfair foreign trade, a senior Democrat said on Tuesday.

“We hope to move it expeditiously,” Rep. Sander Levin, chairman of the House of Representatives Ways and Means trade subcommittee, told reporters. “We’ll be working with the Senate and working with the new administration.”

The pledge to move soon on an enforcement bill follows U.S. Trade Representative-designee Ron Kirk’s promise at his confirmation hearing on Monday that enforcing international trade rules would be a top Obama administration priority.

“When competition is fair, Americans adjust and rise to the challenge. When it is not, our government must act to insist that everyone plays by agreed-upon rules,” Kirk said.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus also plans to move an enforcement bill this year.

The increased emphasis responds to a strong feeling among many Democrats that trade agreements have cost more jobs than they created and that the Republican administration of former President George W. Bush was too lax in making sure other countries abide by deals.

The first concrete sign of the Obama administration’s seriousness about enforcement will come at the end of this month, when the U.S. Trade Representative’s office releases its annual report on foreign trade barriers.

Levin and other Democrats complained for years that the Bush administration was content to merely list foreign trade abuses, rather than challenge them at the World Trade Organization or in other forums.

Asked if he expected a more forceful report this year, Levin responded: “Well, let’s see.”

But Tim Reif, a former top aide to both Levin and House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Charles Rangel, has recently joined USTR as its chief enforcement attorney -- a position the two lawmakers want to raise to rank of ambassador.

Levin and Rangel also have crafted a bill that would require USTR to annually identify the biggest barriers to U.S. exports and develop a plan to eliminate them.

The legislation also would create a new office within Congress to investigate barriers to U.S. exports, develop complaints against foreign countries and call on the U.S. Trade Representative’s office to file cases.

Other provisions would reverse changes the Bush administration made to U.S. antidumping and countervailing laws in response to adverse rulings at the World Trade Organization and would bar the Commerce Department from granting “market economy” status to China without congressional approval.

Levin spoke to reporters after meeting of the trade subcommittee to lay out its agenda for the year.

U.S. enforcement legislation should not be seen abroad as a sign of protectionism since its purpose is to “enforce the rule of law and the openness of markets,” Levin said.

Editing by Eric Walsh