WASHINGTON – The top U.S. trade official told lawmakers Tuesday that the ambitious Trans-Pacific Partnership could be wrapped up within months as he urged Congress to back the administration’s trade agenda.
In testimony to congressional committees, U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman said the administration is looking to lawmakers to pass bipartisan legislation allowing a streamlined approval process for trade deals, such as the 12-nation TPP.
Chief TPP negotiators are meeting in New York this week and a U.S. negotiator said the talks aimed to close all but the trickiest issues. Some see a mid-March completion date.
Froman also said he feels confident that Japan and the United States are “making good progress” in their talks on farm produce tariffs and auto sector issues under the TPP initiative.
“We are not done yet, but I feel confident that we are making good progress and we can close out a positive package soon,” Froman told the Senate Finance Committee, adding the participants are aiming for a deal in a “small number of months.”
Still, outstanding issues are “significant.” There is no consensus on how long to protect the exclusivity of biologic drugs and gaps on other intellectual property protections, environmental protection rules, investment and state-owned enterprises, he said.
At hearings with the Senate and House committees responsible for trade, both Republicans and Democrats said trade negotiations should seek to stop trading partners from manipulating their currencies. Sen. Charles Schumer, a New York Democrat, said he would not support the TPP without action on currencies.
Froman said the Treasury Department has the lead on exchange rates and is pushing the issue one-on-one and in international forums.
The White House’s plans to seal the trade agreement covering 40 percent of the world economy and fast-track legislation in 2015 face opposition from some Democrats worried about the impact on jobs at home and some conservative Republicans opposed to giving President Barack Obama more power.
During the House committee hearing, lawmakers brandished cheese and car keys to represent local industries potentially affected by trade deals. Froman said officials are consulting with stakeholders every step of the way.
Republican Orrin Hatch, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, said it would be a “grave mistake” to close TPP before securing trade promotion authority, or TPA, which allows the White House to submit trade deals to Congress for a yes-or-no vote, without amendments, in exchange for setting negotiating goals.
Hatch said there is no firm timeline for introducing a TPA bill, which experts say would encourage the best offers from trading partners, but he hopes to move it in February