US Senators from both parties provided a reality check on Thursday to the administration of US President Barack Obama’s optimism overs its trade agenda following some progress in key negotiations with Japan.
The administration said last week it narrowed differences on access to Japan’s automobile and agriculture sectors, following Obama’s visit last week to Tokyo. The trade negotiations were a central issue in Obama’s visit, including in his lengthy discussions with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
Progress on market access to cars and agricultural products are key to moving forward on a broader trans-Pacific free-trade pact, but Democratic lawmakers, including New York Senator Charles Schumer, told the administration’s top trade official on Thursday that the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) will not win congressional approval anyway, unless it also addresses alleged currency manipulation by Japan.
US Trade Representative Michael Froman conceded at a Senate Finance Committee hearing that currency issues have not yet been discussed in TPP talks.
The committee’s top-ranking Republican, Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah, questioned the president’s commitment to securing trade promotion authority. He said without it, the administration’s ambitious trade agenda “will almost certainly fail.”
Hatch is a co-sponsor of legislation to renew the so-called “fast track” authority of the president to negotiate a trade deal that would only face an up-or-down vote in US Congress and would not be amended. Without that guarantee, it is harder for the other countries involved in the talks to make tough political decisions.
“The political clock is ticking and it won’t be long before we lose the small window we have to pass significant trade legislation this year,” Hatch said at the hearing.
The TPP agreement is a key component of Obama’s efforts to boost US exports to the growing economies of Asia and assert US influence in the region in the face of China’s ascendancy, but labor groups and lawmakers in Obama’s own Democratic Party oppose the TPP, arguing it could leave US workers vulnerable to competition from countries with lower labor costs.
Many liberal-leaning groups have blasted the proposed deal as a secret plan to censor the Internet, undermine environmental protections and grant more power to corporations.
The deadline for the pact, which would cut tariffs and other barriers to trade, has been pushed back, but Froman said the administration would work to conclude negotiations during this year. The US and Japan are by far the biggest players in the pact that would account for more than a third of global trade.
Froman said while the recent talks with Japan did not result in an agreement between them, it was a “milestone” in tackling some sensitive market-access issues.
“There’s further work to do certainly, but we think there was enough progress to give further momentum to the TPP negotiations overall,” he said.
Senator Ron Wyden, the new chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, said the agreement needed “unprecedented transparency” to have any chance to succeed in Congress and gain support from the US public.
“Americans expect to easily find online the information they want on key issues like trade. Yet too often, there is trade secrecy instead of trade transparency,” Wyden said, noting the presence of several protesters at Thursday’s hearing dressed in bright green T-shirts with the phrase “Release the text” on the front.