WASHINGTON (AP) — A Republican co-sponsor of a bill key to President Barack Obama's effort to boost exports to Asia said Thursday it won't pass unless the administration supports it more actively.
Sen. Orrin Hatch said renewing Trade Promotion Authority, or fast track, is "not an issue where the president can lead from behind" — using a phrase often used by Republicans to criticize Obama.
Hatch complained that U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman declined an invitation to testify at Thursday's Senate Finance Committee hearing on a fast track bill introduced last week, also sponsored by the committee's top Democrat, Sen. Max Baucus.
Obama needs strong Republican support to win passage for fast track, which allows trade pacts to be approved or rejected by Congress, but not amended. He faces some stiff opposition among fellow Democrats.
Fast track is key for passage of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a pact under negotiation with 11 other countries including Japan, as the U.S. looks to build new markets in the region's fast-growing economies and "pivot" its foreign policy toward Asia. Fast track is also intended to apply to trade pact at an earlier stage of negotiation with the 28-member European Union.
"If the administration does not get more involved in this effort to pass trade negotiating authority, we're not going to be successful," Hatch, the committee's top Republican, told the hearing.
The White House last week welcomed the bill's introduction, and said it would work with Democrats and Republicans throughout the legislative process. U.S. Trade Representative spokeswoman Carol Guthrie said Thursday that it's doing just that, and Froman had spent most of this week meeting with lawmakers.
At the hearing, representatives of the aerospace industry, agriculture and small business voiced support for freer trade. But the labor movement stressed the need for enforceable standards on labor rights, environment and stopping currency manipulation, to prevent further loss of U.S. manufacturing jobs to poorer nations where wages are lower.
Baucus said exports already support nearly 10 million U.S. jobs, and the proposed trade pacts would open up huge new markets.
"We have to renew trade promotion authority now," he said, adding that the bill addresses the concerns raised by labor.
Baucus is a six-term senator and keen advocate of trade pacts. But his recent nomination to become U.S. ambassador to China could leave him little time left to push the legislation forward.
While there was unanimous Republicans support at Thursday's hearing, most of the Democrats questioned aspects of the bill, signaling that its passage could be rocky.
An important player will be Sen. Ron Wyden, who is expected to replace Baucus as chair of the finance committee.
He said Republicans and Democrats need to write a fast track bill that can "expand the winners' circle" so states like Pennsylvania — which have been hit hard by the decline of heavy industry — don't feel they're getting short-changed, while states like his native Oregon, where one in six jobs depends on international trade, also benefit.