The completion of a long-awaited Pacific trade deal may still be a ways off, international officials say, so long as U.S. legislators continue to delay key trade legislation that would make the deal possible.
Chief negotiators from nations on both sides of the Pacific are set to meet the second week of March in Hawaii to hash out details on the proposed free trade agreement that now includes 11 countries and roughly one-third of global trade.
Australia’s trade minister has said he hopes to see to an agreement by mid-March and officials in Mexico have said their amenable to the timeline. But Japan’s Economy Minister Akira Amari said last week that reaching an agreement was “becoming difficult” as nations wait for the U.S. to pass key trade legislation, according to Reuters.
The major stumbling block stateside has been a debate over trade promotion authority, a negotiating “fast track” that would streamline trade talks: giving Congress a simple yes-or-no vote on trade deals, while vesting the primary negotiating powers in the hands of the president.
Since 2012, the Obama administration has been seeking to renew that authority that would give the president the power to negotiate international agreements such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
That partnership, and the fast-track legislation that could make it possible, has broad support among Republican members of Congress as well as groups from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to the National Retail Federation.
Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch, Republican chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, has said he plans on introducing legislation this month to streamline the passage of trade deals through Congress. He has also called for a hearing before his committee Thursday to discuss the U.S. trade agenda and priorities.
But it’s been members of the president’s own party that have been reluctant to “jump on the bandwagon,” in the words of Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev. Reid, the Senate’s top Democrat, has said he will not even consider trade promotion authority legislation until there are certain guarantees it will benefit the middle class.
The finance committee’s top Democrat, Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon, has agreed with Reid and said last week that he believes a hearing would be premature.
“There is no agreement on trade promotion authority, or other aspects of the legislative trade agenda more broadly," Wyden spokesman Keith Chu said in a statement.
"Sen. Wyden is continuing to fight for more transparency, more oversight and provisions to ensure American workers come first in our trade policy," Chu said.
Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan, Hatch’s counterpart on the House Ways and Means Committee, told reporters late last month that Republicans are dedicated to seeking bipartisan support for “fast track” legislation. Ryan praised the White House’s recent efforts to drum up Democratic votes and said he remains adamant trade promotion authority pass with bipartisan support.
“These are enormous issues that speak to the future of our country,” Ryan told reporters. “I do believe it’s good for the political system that we deliver some common ground and we get some things done.”
It’s been almost eight years since trade promotion authority was last in effect. Before that, the president was granted the authority between 1975 and 1994 and again from 2002 through 2007. Although the authority expired without renewal in 2007, it continued to apply to trade agreements already under negotiation until 2011. The Obama administration has been seeking renewed authority since 2012.