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White House says it will seek "fast-track" trade authority

U.S. President Barack Obama speaks to the National Governors Association in the State Dining Room of the White House in Washington February
U.S. President Barack Obama speaks to the National Governors Association in the State Dining Room of the White House in Washington February

By Doug Palmer

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The White House on Friday said it would work for approval of politically contentious legislation that would ease the way for new trade deals, as it tries to wrap up talks on an Asia-Pacific free-trade agreement this year.

But the brief reference to the legislation known as "trade promotion authority" in an annual report on the president's trade agenda failed to impress some key Republicans who have been pressing for action on the issue for years.

House of Representative Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp, a Michigan Republican, urged President Barack Obama to "demonstrate his commitment to a vigorous and productive trade policy" by opening talks with Congress on the "fast track" powers and "nominating a qualified and committed U.S. trade representative."

The current U.S. trade representative, Ron Kirk, plans to step down soon. That will leave the position of chief U.S. trade negotiator vacant as the United States prepares to launch trade talks with the European Union and as it seeks to finish talks on a Trans-Pacific Partnership pact by the end of the year.

Trade promotion authority, also known as TPA or "fast track," allows the White House to submit deals to Congress for straight up-or-down votes without any amendments.

It is considered essential to assuring other countries that any deal they reach with the United States will not be picked apart by U.S. lawmakers during the approval process.

Both Camp and Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, a Democrat from Montana, have announced plans to pursue TPA legislation. But many lawmakers believe a strong push from Obama is needed because trade bills are unpopular with many Democrats.

After four years of telling Congress they would seek TPA at "the appropriate time," the annual trade agenda released on Friday by the U.S. trade representative's office contained the administration's most forward-leaning language yet.

"To facilitate the conclusion, approval, and implementation of market-opening negotiating efforts, we will also work with Congress on Trade Promotion Authority. Such authority will guide current and future negotiations, and will thus support a jobs-focused trade agenda moving forward," the report said.

ASIA-PACIFIC TRADE PUSH

The Obama administration, even without the authority, has pursued the proposed Trans-Pacific accord between the United States and 10 other countries in the Asia-Pacific region.

But negotiators hope to finish those talks this year, possibly as early as the annual meeting of leaders from Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation nations in October in Bali.

That could be hard if the White House does not have TPA.

"Whether you're talking about the Trans-Pacific Partnership or a U.S.-EU FTA, they're both going to be complicated and having them subject to amendment will make it tough to get them through the Senate," said Timothy Punke, a former Senate aide who is now a partner at Monument Policy Group.

Congress last approved TPA legislation in 2002, following a bitter fight. Republicans, who generally favor free trade, passed the bill over the objections of Democrats, many of whom blame past trade agreements for U.S. job losses.

Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah, the top Republican on the Senate Finance Committee, said on Friday he was pleased the White House was "finally" asking for renewal of the legislation.

But "making TPA a reality requires more than talk, it demands real leadership and action from the president," Hatch said, calling the legislation an essential "lynchpin" for Obama's trade agenda.

Senator Rob Portman, an Ohio Republican and former U.S. trade representative under President George W. Bush, welcomed the statement but said it was critical the administration "focus needed resources to developing and passing TPA."

The U.S. business community has made passage of TPA one of its top priorities this year.

"We think it's a critical tool to effectively negotiate agreements and get them passed by Congress," said John Engler, president of the Business Roundtable and a former Michigan Republican governor.

Christopher Wenk, senior director of international policy at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said his group welcomed the administration's acknowledgement that "TPA needs to be on the agenda" as it pursues an expanding list of trade initiatives.

(Reporting by Doug Palmer; Editing by Todd Eastham and Paul Simao)

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