Senate Republicans Say Obama’s Silence Risks Trade Agenda

Senate Republicans stepped up calls for President Barack Obama to get more directly involved in pushing Congress to enable speedy approval of trade deals, saying that he is endangering his second-term trade agenda.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, said on the Senate floor that a bipartisan measure that would give Obama the ability to win passage of trade deals without amendment may not get enough support if Obama doesn’t start talking more on the issue.

“We need the president to get involved,” McConnell said today. “We need him to step up for American workers and increased exports by bringing his party on board with the trade promotion bill that was introduced just last week.”

At a Senate Finance Committee hearing on the measure today, the top Republican on the panel, Orrin Hatch of Utah, also said Obama’s efforts are falling short.

“This is not a case where the president can lead from behind,” said Hatch. He and McConnell said Obama must give the issue priority in his annual State of the Union speech Jan. 28.

The Obama administration is seeking authority to smooth congressional passage of trade deals, including one being negotiated with a group of 11 other Pacific-region nations and another with the 28-nation European Union. Those pacts, to create the world’s largest free-trade zones, would link regions with about $44 trillion in annual economic output.

Camp Bill

The U.S. is also negotiating a services-trade agreement with a group of nations that would cover about half of the world’s economy.

House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp, a Michigan Republican, last week introduced the legislation on so-called trade-promotion authority, along with Hatch and Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, a Montana Democrat.

The measure includes updates for labor and environmental protections, provisions to guard intellectual property against Internet crimes, and a first-ever provision to prevent currency manipulation by trading partners.

The legislation faces growing opposition. Representative Sander Levin of Michigan, the top Democrat on the Ways and Means panel, last week said he will help lead opposition to the measure. In November, 151 House Democrats sent a letter to Obama opposing giving the administration fast-track authority.

At the same time, 23 House Republicans, including some aligned with the small-government Tea Party movement, sent a letter saying they don’t back fast-track approval of trade deals.

Speaker Boehner

House Speaker John Boehner said today at his weekly news conference that Obama has to “pull out all the stops” to get trade promotion legislation passed. Boehner, an Ohio Republican, said he hoped a bill could be passed this year.

Obama hasn’t publicly pressed Congress to act since a July 30 speech called for the authority. Others in the administration, including U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman and Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker, have been more engaged. White House Press Secretary Jay Carney yesterday said the bipartisan proposal is “welcome,” without endorsing it.

At today’s Finance panel hearing, Larry Cohen, president of Communications Workers of America, made clear that unions will push hard to defeat the proposal unless it greatly expands the role of Congress in negotiating free-trade deals.

At the same time, Honeywell International Inc.’s top executive called for swift action, telling lawmakers that the company’s sales in the U.S. grew by 33 percent since 2002 and was twice that pace outside the U.S.

Honeywell CEO David Cote said that without the new trade deals, his company and others will fall behind, with competitors getting the benefits as American companies face tariffs on their goods sold overseas.

“If the U.S. is not in the vanguard of pursuing new agreements, we risk falling behind other countries that are pursuing agreements of their own,” Cote said.

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