WASHINGTON (AP) — Top business executives are pressing Congress to give President Barack Obama greater authority to negotiate international trade deals, citing the potential for increased hiring in the United States and greater competitiveness for their companies overseas.
In a report Tuesday by the lobbying group Business Roundtable, the CEOs say their expectations for the economy have improved but that business needs more confidence to increase hiring.
The group's survey of 120 executives found that more than half of the CEOs — 54 percent — said trade would allow them to boost their employment in the United States.
Forging a 12-nation trade deal with Pacific Rim countries is one of Obama's top priorities this year. Most Republicans, who now control Congress, support broadening trade. But Obama faces resistance from a majority of Democrats who say such agreements put the United States at a disadvantage. Obama is asking for the power to negotiate deals that Congress can only approve or reject, but not amend.
The Business Roundtable can be an influential player in business and economic policy and its trade push could help counter arguments that trade deals send U.S. jobs overseas.
"When you think about those issues that are ripe for being dealt with in this Congress, to us it seems the most likely issue is trade," said Business Roundtable Chairman Randall Stephenson, the chairman and CEO of AT&T. "There seems to be broad bipartisan support for passing trade promotion authority for the president, the president himself is engaged and believes this is important as well."
In a conference call with reporters, Stephenson said the group would lobby for Congress to grant Obama so-called "fast track" authority in the first half of this year. He cautioned that delaying until later in the year ran the risk of getting overtaken by 2016 election year politics.
The group's survey and its push on trade came a day before labor leaders mount their own lobbying effort against trade promotion authority for the president. The AFL-CIO was organizing a day of visits with lawmakers and a press conference to argue that such authority would yield bad trade deals.
Stephenson said in addition to giving Obama expanded authority to negotiate trade deals, Congress should also overhaul the business tax system, a much more challenging political task than trade.
He also called for spending on infrastructure projects and adopting regulations that encourage business investment, a common refrain among business leaders.
The CEO survey also found that their six-month outlook for sales hit a three-year high during the first quarter of 2015. And while the CEOs are less bullish about economic growth this year than other forecasters, they still expect a better economic performance than they did in the fourth quarter of last year.
According to the survey, more CEOs are planning to step up their investment in machinery, plants and other equipment in the next six months. Forty-five percent said they had such plans, up from 36 percent three months ago.
Stephenson attributed that increase to a package of tax breaks passed by Congress late last year that provided clarity on the tax treatment of capital equipment spending.
Stronger hiring, lower gas prices and some incipient signs of higher wages are encouraging consumers to spend more, Stephenson said, brightening the chief executives' sales outlook. Eighty percent now expect higher sales in the next six months, up from 74 percent in last year's fourth quarter.
Despite the increased optimism, hiring plans were largely unchanged, with 40 percent of CEOs expecting to add jobs in the next six months, the same as three months earlier. That follows steady gains in hiring intentions for the past three years.
Associated Press economics writer Christopher S. Rugaber contributed to this article.