President Obama’s pick to be his top trade adviser told lawmakers Thursday that he would push for Congress to restore the administration’s “fast-track” authority to negotiate free-trade pacts, as the administration gears up for major market-opening talks with the European Union and with Asia-Pacific nations.
Michael Froman, now deputy national security adviser for international economic affairs, also said during a Senate Finance Committee confirmation hearing that he would make it a priority to crack down on China for manipulating its currency.
Fast-track trade authority — the ability of the executive branch to negotiate trade deals that Congress can only approve or disapprove without amendments — expired in 2007 under President George W. Bush, greatly curbing the ability to swing new trade pacts. While Mr. Obama has discussed new trade initiatives with major partners across both oceans, the only major free-trade agreements to pass under his watch are those with South Korea, Colombia and Panama in 2011, which were largely negotiated on Mr. Bush’s watch.
“He is more than capable to do the job at hand,” Chairman Max Baucus, Montana Democrat, said at the hearing. “We should confirm his nomination, and we should do it quickly.”
But Republicans also used the hearing as an opportunity to take a shot as Mr. Obama, calling him a “hypocrite” for submitting yet another nominee who has a offshore bank account in his personal financial portfolio, after he attacked GOP nominee Mitt Romney for the same thing during last fall’s presidential campaign.
Mr. Froman, an executive at Citigroup before joining the Obama White House, disclosed in filings to the committee ahead of the confirmation hearing that he has almost $500,000 in an investment account registered in the Cayman Islands. He also earned a sizable bonus for his work at Citigroup, which was one of the big banks bailed out in the 2008-2009 global financial crunch.
Sen. Orrin G. Hatch of Utah, the ranking Republican on the panel, noted that the president had sent up two other recent nominees with financial ties to the Cayman Islands, including Treasury Secretary Jack Lew.
“Now, I don’t raise these issues to suggest that Mr. Froman has done something wrong or that he has not complied with our tax laws,” Mr. Hatch said. “I believe he has. Instead, I simply want to point out what appears to be hypocrisy on the part of President Obama and his administration.”
Lawmakers from both parties expressed support for a more activist free-trade agenda. Even before the hearing, GOP Sens. Rob Portman of Ohio and Roy Blunt of Missouri had already endorsed Mr. Froman, and it appeared likely that Mr. Hatch will, as well, in next week’s committee vote.
“We’re counting on you to be very energetic,” Mr. Hatch said.
Mr. Froman would replace former U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk, who left in March, even as the Obama administration is in the middle of trade discussions with the European Union and Asia-Pacific nations.
The trade agreement with the European Union, dubbed the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, will begin negotiations later this summer, and officials hope to complete it by the end of 2014. The Trans-Pacific Partnership, which would open up trade with 11 Asia-Pacific nations, hopes to wrap up negotiations by the end of this year, though many analysts believe that deadline will be difficult to meet.
“We think there is a lot of momentum there, a lot of political will,” he said.