U.S. lawmakers propose fast-track bill for trade agreements
U.S. lawmakers on Thursday proposed a bill to give the White House power to fast-track international trade agreements as the United States gears up for a hectic year of trade negotiations.
The bill would let the administration put trade deals before Congress for an up or down vote without amendments, a move backed by big business and farmers but viewed with caution by others. Without that assurance, trading partners could be less willing to sign deals.
The fast-track power would help the United States in negotiations this year with Pacific Rim and European Union countries on two separate pacts that would encompass nearly two-thirds of the global economy and trade flows.
Under the bipartisan Trade Promotion Authority (TPA) proposal, avoiding currency manipulation would be set as a goal for U.S. trade negotiators, a controversial measure that may upset major trading partners. Aides said the bill would also strengthen rules for agriculture.
"The TPA legislation that we are introducing today will make sure that these trade deals get done, and get done right," said Democrat Max Baucus, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, which has jurisdiction over trade.
The committee's senior Republican, Orrin Hatch, and Representative Dave Camp, the Republican chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, which also oversees trade issues, joined Baucus in backing the bill.
But passage is not assured. Representative Sander Levin, the top Democrat on the Ways and Means panel, declined to join the proposal and said he was working on separate legislation.
Critics of the fast-track power say it erodes transparency and accountability and does not protect local workers, which unions say is of particular concern with the Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP.
"More U.S. jobs would be shifted overseas and U.S. workers would suffer lower wages as companies look to countries like Vietnam, where the average hourly wage is 75 cents," Communications Workers of America President Larry Cohen said in a statement. Vietnam is a TPP partner.
The White House welcomed the proposal and said failing to act could leave the United States at a competitive disadvantage.
"We need to use every tool we have to knock down trade barriers," it said in a statement. "If we don't seize these opportunities, our competitors surely will."
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has said it will lobby lawmakers to support the fast-track power, which lapsed in 2007, and said sealing the trade pacts was vital for jobs and growth.