January 27, 2015 / 11:37 AM / 5 years ago

Top U.S. trade negotiator says Pacific pact nearly ready

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The top U.S. trade official told lawmakers on Tuesday an ambitious Pacific trade pact could be wrapped up within months as he urged Congress to back the administration’s trade agenda.

U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman testifies before a Senate Finance Committee hearing on "President Obama's 2015 Trade Policy Agenda" on Capitol Hill in Washington January 27, 2015. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

In testimony to congressional committees, U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman said the administration looked to lawmakers to pass bipartisan legislation allowing a streamlined approval process for trade deals, such as the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).

TPP chief negotiators are meeting in New York this week and a U.S. negotiator said the talks aimed to close all but the trickiest issues. Some see a mid-March completion date.

“We are not done yet but I feel confident that we are making good progress and we can close out a positive package soon,” Froman told the Senate Committee on Finance, adding parties aimed for a deal in a “small number of months.”

Still, outstanding issues were “significant.” There was no consensus on how long to protect the exclusivity of biologic drugs and gaps on other intellectual property protections, environmental protection rules, investment and state-owned enterprises, he said.

At hearings with the Senate and House committees responsible for trade, both Republicans and Democrats said trade negotiations should seek to stop trading partners from manipulating their currencies. Senator Charles Schumer, a New York Democrat, said he would not support the TPP without action on currencies.

Froman said Treasury had the lead on exchange rates and was pushing the issue one-on-one and in international forums.

The White House’s plans to seal a trade agreement covering 40 percent of the world economy and fast-track legislation in 2015 face opposition from some Democrats worried about the impact on jobs at home and some conservative Republicans opposed to giving President Barack Obama more power.

During the House committee hearing, lawmakers brandished cheese and car keys to represent local industries potentially affected by trade deals. Froman said officials were consulting with stakeholders every step of the way.

Republican Orrin Hatch, chairman of the Senate Committee on Finance, said it would be a “grave mistake” to close TPP before securing trade promotion authority (TPA), which allows the White House to submit trade deals to Congress for a yes-or-no vote, without amendments, in exchange for setting negotiating goals.

Hatch said there was no firm timeline for introducing a TPA bill, which experts say will encourage the best offers from trading partners, but he hoped to move it in February.

Editing by Chizu Nomiyama, Matthew Lewis, Diane Craft and Phil Berlowitz

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