WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Senators on Tuesday clashed over an amendment to give President Barack Obama "trade promotion authority" to negotiate a new market-opening agreement, with Democrats telling Republicans the time is not right.
Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell said it was vital that Obama have the authority to complete work on a proposed Transpacific free-trade agreement and to negotiate other pacts to open foreign markets to more American exports.
"In order to create the kind of jobs we need, we'll need more trade deals than this," McConnell said, referring to long-delayed trade pacts with South Korea, Colombia and Panama negotiated under former President George W. Bush.
"And that's why I've been a strong advocate for granting this president the same trade promotion authority that every other president has enjoyed since 1974."
Obama has not asked for trade promotion authority, which expired in 2007 and also is known as "fast track" because it puts trade pacts on a quick path to congressional approval.
An administration official said Obama will seek the authority "at an appropriate time," but pursuing the measure now would slow down action on the South Korea, Colombia and Panama trade deals expected to go to Congress in coming weeks.
Senator Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat who chairs the Senate Finance Committee subcommittee on trade, echoed that concern.
He said lawmakers needed more time to craft new negotiating objectives for the White House, rather than just renew the expired law through 2013 as McConnell has proposed.
"There is a lot of interest on our side of the aisle in working on this issue, but I would urge colleagues to resist the McConnell amendment," Wyden said.
Senators have been debating whether to renew two expired trade programs in what business groups hope is a prelude to action on the South Korea, Panama and Colombia pacts.
One, the Generalized System of Preferences, waives duties on thousands of goods from developing countries. The other, Trade Adjustment Assistance, provides income and retraining assistance for workers who have lost their jobs because of foreign competition.
McConnell criticized Obama for insisting Trade Adjustment Assistance be approved before submitting the trade deals.
"Still, I and others have agreed to allow it so we can finally move ahead on these vital trade deals," he said. "And it's my expectation ... that the president will stop dragging his feet and soon submit all three of them for a quick approval."
(Reporting by Doug Palmer; editing by Philip Barbara and Christopher Wilson)