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Obama seeks authority to make Pacific trading pacts

Buoyed by success of recent free-trade deals

The Obama administration is hoping to build on the momentum of recent free-trade agreements with South Korea, Colombia and Panama as attention turns to the Trans-Pacific Partnership and trade promotion authority.

"We are not stopping there," U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk told the U.S. Chamber of Commerce this week. "The American economy needs the Trans-Pacific Partnership."

The Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP, is the initiative on most trade experts minds. The pact would open up many Asian markets. Brunei, Chile, New Zealand and Singapore signed the original agreement in 2005. Since then, five more countries, including the U.S., Australia, Malaysia, Peru and Vietnam have been trying to join. Theres also talk that Japan might be interested in participating, but they have not made a decision.

Negotiations will resume next month during the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meetings in Hawaii.

Mr. Kirk said he is optimistic a tentative framework for the agreement will be reached and that could be signed in late 2012.

"We are seeking binding commitments," he said. "There's still going to be work to do, but our goal is to have the broad outlines of the agreement in place."

It's also important Congress once again gives the president trade promotion authority, said Tom Donohue, president and CEO of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which allows him to "fast track" trade deals that he sends to Congress, so they can only be voted on with a yes or no. That keeps the process from getting weighed down with amendments, which could discourage other countries.

"I don't care who the president is," Mr. Donohue said. "The president needs trade promotion authority if we are going to play with the big boys. Potential partners will never negotiate if they think any agreement we put together can be picked apart piece by piece."

It took a half decade to get the recent FTAs across the finish line. But Mr. Kirk hopes the TPP deal can be negotiated more quickly.

"We don't want this dragging on," he said, "because this can be a real generator for growth."

The recent trade deals have been seen as paving the way for productive negotiations on TPP.

"It sends a positive signal to our APEC partners that we're in the game and we're in the game in a big way," said Michael L. Ducker, chief operating officer at FedEx. "It adds new energy to all the trade discussions."

Without the pacts, the U.S. could have had trouble gaining credibility with new trading partners.

"I'm so sick of listening to, 'Are you guys ever going to do this?' " Mr. Donohue said. "Well, we've done it. We don't have to take that burden to APEC."

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