Kirk said negotiators had been “making really good progress” and they hoped to have the broad outline of an agreement when leaders meet in Honolulu next month for the annual Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum.
“TPP is the one game in town and there is going to be a lot of focus on that,” said John Murphy, vice president for international affairs at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
But in a world filled with acronyms, TPP would have a tough time getting congressional approval without TPA. Trade promotion authority, also known as fast track, gives the president the authority to negotiate trade deals that Congress can either accept or reject, but cannot amend. That authority expired in 2007 and Obama, tied to Democrats and labor groups who oppose further free trade agreements, has not pushed for its restoration.
Last month Senate Republicans tried to revive TPA, but the measure was defeated on a largely party-line vote. Democrats argued that the TPA law has to first be rewritten to reflect changes in such areas as digital services and the environment.
Kirk also emphasized the importance of getting other countries to abide by existing trade rules. “Enforcement has been paramount to the work we have done on market access,” he said, adding that “if we could get China to a better place where they were really opening up their markets,” it would be a major windfall to U.S. exporters.
Mitt Romney, currently viewed as the strongest contender for the GOP presidential nomination, said in a trade policy speech this month that he would work to reestablish TPA and promote more free trade agreements. He also singled out China, saying that as president he would take punitive actions if China continues to unfairly subsidize its domestic products and manipulate its currency.
The Obama administration was cool to legislation passed by the Senate last month that would make it easier to impose higher tariffs on China if it continues to keep its currency undervalued as a way to make its exports cheaper.
Lori Wallach, director of Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch, a group that has strongly opposed past trade agreements, said Obama may have to get tougher on China if he is to defend Ohio and other states where workers hit by foreign trade don’t agree with his promotion of free trade.
She said Obama has already lost ground among Democrats, noting that a greater percentage of House Democrats, 71.4 percent, voted against Obama on the trade deals than on any other legislation since he took office.
Among other prickly subjects in the coming year, Russia is close to being accepted into the World Trade Organization, but U.S. businesses wouldn’t benefit from lower Russian tariffs unless Congress repeals the Cold War Jackson-Vanik law that barred normal trade relations with the Soviet Union because of its policies on Jewish emigration. And the U.S. still has to make sure that South Korea, Colombia and Panama are ready to carry out their trade agreement commitments, a process that could take months.
But the Chamber’s Murphy said they are for now putting aside their frustrations over trade. “This isn’t the moment for that. This is a week for sunny optimism.”