U.S. senators urge Biden to drop trade waivers, prioritize U.S. firms in COVID relief effort

U.S. President Joe Biden delivers remarks on the implementation of the American Rescue Plan in the State Dining Room at the White House in Washington, U.S., March 15, 2021. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Thirteen Democratic U.S. senators on Monday urged President Joe Biden to act quickly to suspend waivers to the Buy American program that would allow foreign companies to bid for work funded by his $1.9 trillion relief bill.

In the letter, spearheaded by Senators Tammy Baldwin and Sherrod Brown, the senators called on Biden to use his executive authority to temporarily suspend waivers before any contracts can be awarded.

“In order to ensure that this spending provides the relief intended, we ask you to take steps to close loopholes that could allow the historic investments included in COVID relief legislation to go to foreign firms,” they wrote.

No response was immediately available from the White House or the U.S. Trade Representative’s office.

The COVID-19 pandemic revealed big gaps in U.S. supply chains, especially in the area of medical equipment and supplies. Biden has ordered a review of all Trump trade policies, and wants to use government procurement contracts to incentivize U.S. firms to boost production at home.

The senators said U.S. trade policies - including the waivers that allow firms from 60 countries to bid for government contracts - opened double the opportunities to foreign firms than were open to U.S. companies in the next five largest trade partners combined, citing a 2017 study done by the Government Accountability Office, a congressional watchdog agency.

Suspending the waivers and renegotiating their terms would ensure that the COVID-19 relief funds were reinvested in the United States, the senators said.

“We are not advocating for a ‘go it alone’ approach to trade,” the senators said.

They noted that removing the waivers would not remove other exemptions built into domestic preference laws, and that government agencies could still buy from a foreign supplier if costs for a U.S.-built product were prohibitive.

Reporting by Andrea Shalal; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall