US Senate leader's opposition will not kill EU, Asia trade deals

30 January 2014 22:19  [Source: ICIS news]

WASHINGTON (ICIS)--A top Senate Democrat’s opposition to fast-track trade authority for the White House likely will not undermine President Barack Obama’s pending omnibus trade deals with the EU and Asia, a top chemicals industry leader said on Thursday.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (Democrat-Nevada) said on Wednesday that he is opposed to Congress giving Obama trade promotion authority (TPA), otherwise known as fast-track trade authorisation.

That authority is considered essential to advancing two key US export/import negotiations with Europe and Asia.

“I’m against fast-track,” Reid told reporters on Wednesday, adding that “I think everyone would be well-advised just not to push this right now.”

TPA has been authorised by Congress for US presidents since 1974, with some interruptions. In its most recent existence, TPA lapsed in 2007, although that expiration did not affect trade deals that were already in negotiations at that time.

TPA allows the president to negotiate trade deals with foreign countries or groups of countries and then submit the final agreement to Congress for an up-or-down vote.  Under the take-it-or-leave-it terms of TPA, Congress cannot amend the trade deal or filibuster it but must simply approve or reject the agreement as a whole.

Obama and US Trade Representative Michael Froman are pursuing two crucial, multinational trade agreements, the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) with 12 Asian nations and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) with the EU.

Both trade deals are of critical importance to US chemicals manufacturers because they would eliminate tariffs in Asia and the EU that now inhibit chemicals exports to those regions.

But Cal Dooley, president of the American Chemistry Council (ACC), said on Thursday that he did not think that Reid’s opposition to TPA poses a major obstacle to completing both trade agreements.

Dooley served as a member of Congress from 1991 to 2004, representing successively the 17th and 20th districts of California, and he was a leader in the House Democrat caucus on trade issues.

“I worked with President Bush and President Clinton in advancing trade liberalisation issues,” Dooley said on Thursday, “and in all that time Harry Reid never once supported TPA, so no one should be surprised at his opposition now.”

As majority leader in the Senate, Reid has considerable power, including the authority to decide what bills will be allowed a full floor vote in the Senate - or will not.  His oppostion to fast-track trade authorisation is seen as linked to his close ties with constituents in labour and environmental movements. 

Those groups oppose fast-track on grounds that US employees must compete with under-represented and low-paid workers in other countries that also have weak or nonexistent environmental controls. the lack of which make production in those nations cheaper.

Dooley indicated that despite Reid’s opposition to TPA, fast-track trade authorisation could still be approved by Congress.

“As in the past, to secure sufficient bipartisan support for TPA, it will require a strong, personal engagement by President Obama and a commitment by him to make this one of his highest priorities,” Dooley said.

Dooley noted that congressional votes on trade promotion authority “have always passed with just a handful of votes”, which is why it is critical that Obama becomes engaged in the legislative process.

He noted that Obama has committed to the TTIP and TPP deals and has directed Froman to move aggressively to secure both agreements.

“If the president is committed to this, it has always been possible to get trade promotion authority through Congress,” Dooley said.

Paul Hodges studies key influences shaping the chemical industry in Chemicals and the Economy

By: Joe Kamalick
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