February 21, 2015 / 12:35 AM / 4 years ago

Pacific trade pact negotiators to meet in March; timing for deal slips

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Chief negotiators for a Pacific trade deal will meet in Hawaii for talks in the second week of March, the U.S. trade office said on Friday, a move which could delay a final agreement on the pact.

Australian Trade Minister Andrew Robb said on Feb. 5 he hoped to agree on the bulk of the Trans-Pacific Partnership by mid-March, a timeline Mexico also said was feasible.

But no date has been set for ministers to make final decisions on politically sensitive issues such as how long drug companies can monopolize new medicines. The agreement would stretch from Japan to Chile, covering 40 percent of the world economy.

The U.S. Congress has yet to debate key trade legislation, and Japan’s economy minister said on Wednesday reaching an agreement in spring was “becoming difficult.”

The U.S. Trade Representative’s office said negotiators would meet March 9-15. The talks may lay the groundwork for a ministerial meeting.

“We expect there will be some agreements that will need to be handled at a higher level and when the time is right to do that, we will,” U.S. Chief Agricultural Negotiator Darci Vetter said on Thursday.

One hurdle is the lack of U.S. legislation to streamline the passage of trade deals through Congress, which is seen as key to encouraging final offers from trading partners.

Senator Orrin Hatch, the Republican chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, has said he hopes to introduce a bill in February. He has called a hearing before his committee next Thursday to discuss the trade agenda, which a spokeswoman said would give members a chance to discuss trade priorities.

But a spokesman for the panel’s top Democrat, Senator Ron Wyden, said Wyden believes a hearing is premature given talks are continuing on trade promotion authority (TPA) legislation, which would restrict Congress to a yes-or-no vote on trade deals in exchange for setting negotiating objectives.

Republicans are happy with a bill introduced last year, but Wyden is pushing for more oversight and transparency.

A Japanese official familiar with the talks said earlier this month although the United States and Japan had to reach agreement on farm and auto exports before the broader deal could close, Tokyo was encouraged to see engagement on fast-track.

“That is a welcome sign that the end is approaching because unless you have TPA, the U.S. administration may not be capable of agreeing to a final package,” he said.

Reporting by Krista Hughes; Additional reporting by Linda Sieg in Tokyo; Editing by Frances Kerry, James Dalgleish and Bernard Orr

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