Hatch urges Obama action on free-trade deals with Asia, Europe

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The Republican co-sponsor of a bill key to President Obama’s effort to swing major new trade deals with Asian and European partners warned Thursday that the agreements won’t pass unless the administration supports them more actively.

Utah Sen. Orrin G. Hatch said renewing Trade Promotion Authority, also known as “fast-track” authority, is “not an issue where the president can lead from behind” — using a phrase often used by Republicans to criticize Mr. Obama.

Mr. 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 Democratic committee chairman, Sen. Max Baucus of Montana.

Mr. Obama needs strong Republican support to win passage for renewed trade authority, which allows trade pacts to be approved or rejected by Congress on an up-or-down basis, without amendments. He faces some stiff opposition from fellow Democrats, many of whom are skeptical of free-trade deals.

Fast-track is key for passage of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a pact under negotiation with 11 other Pacific Rim countries including Japan, as the U.S. looks to build new markets in the region’s fast-growing economies. Fast-track authority is also intended to apply to a 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,” Mr. 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 Mr. 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 opening foreign markets. But the labor movement stressed the need for enforceable standards on labor rights, environment and stopping currency manipulation, to prevent what they warn will be further loss of U.S. manufacturing jobs to poorer nations where wages are lower.

Mr. 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, arguing that the bill addresses the concerns raised by labor.

Mr. Baucus is a longtime advocate of trade pacts, but his recent nomination to become U.S. ambassador to China could leave him little time 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, the Oregon Democrat in line to replace Mr. Baucus as chair of the powerful finance panel.

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 shortchanged, while states like his native Oregon, where one in six jobs depends on international trade, also benefit.

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