Members of the New Democrat Coalition (NDC), while supportive of renewing trade promotion authority (TPA) for the Obama administration, will not pursue that as a legislative priority until the White House makes clear that it would like Congress to begin discussions on this topic, leading members of the coalition said this week. House Republicans, on the other hand, are anxious to start pushing ahead with consideration of TPA renewal.
"I think the prudent step is to defer to [the administration's] discretion in regards to TPA authority," Rep. Ron Kind (D-WI), who heads up the NDC, said in a Jan. 15 interview. "If they feel this is something that's necessary for them to move forward on successful negotiations, I'm sure they'll come and have that conversation with Congress. We're going to have to follow their lead as far as the timing of all this."
While the administration has made clear that it would like Congress to renew TPA at some point, it has not pushed Congress to do so thus far. Rep. Rick Larsen (D-WA), who co-chairs the coalition's Trade, Critical Infrastructure and Manufacturing Task Force, said he got the sense that the administration was focused in the near term on completing the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) talks.
"They haven't asked for it, but I don't get the sense that they're avoiding it," Larsen said in a separate interview. "I think they are more focused, on the trade side, on the Trans-Pacific Partnership and making that as good an agreement as it can be." This view was also supported by Bill Reinsch, president of the National Foreign Trade Council (NFTC), who said the administration wants to wait until TPP is essentially concluded before beginning to talk about TPA renewal.
"The signals I have gotten from the administration have been largely that they would prefer to have that [TPA] discussion in the context of the TPP result, do it all at once," Reinsch said at a Jan. 11 event organized by NFTC.
While NDC members may be deferring to the administration on this issue, House Republicans are anxious to begin a debate on TPA renewal in earnest, and it is unclear to what extent they will force the issue. Larsen said that NDC members would certainly "take a look at" any proposals put forward by Republicans on this issue, but declined to further elaborate on how House Democrats would react.
Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-MT) and Ranking Member Orrin Hatch (R-UT) are also eager to begin the debate on TPA renewal. One Hill source said speculation is growing that Baucus will start the legislative process in coming months. If that happens and the NDC, after careful review, supports his bill, this source speculated that the NDC may look to play a leadership role in moving similar legislation in the House.
Still, Larsen doubted that any serious legislative effort on TPA renewal will take place in the near term because the congressional agenda is crowded early this year with items like immigration reform, gun control and fiscal issues related to the debt ceiling and sequestration. Moreover, the Hill source pointed out, it is unclear who will head up the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, as USTR Ron Kirk has said publicly he does not intend to stay on for a second term.
This leadership change at USTR could further delay real conversations on TPA renewal with the administration, the Hill source speculated.
TPA, also called fast-track negotiating authority, lays out negotiating objectives for trade agreements and then ensures that when those agreements are submitted to Congress, they are protected from amendments, provided they meet those objectives. Congress has not passed a TPA bill since 2002 and the authority itself has not been in place since 2007.
While the administration could formally request that Congress begin the process of laying out new negotiating objectives in a new TPA bill, Congress does not need the administration to make any such request in order to start the legislative process of drafting a TPA bill. Still, the administration will likely want to participate closely in the legislative process, as TPA is one way in which it can help define the course of trade negotiations over the next four years.
"This is an opportunity for the administration to clear the deck and establish its own trade agenda rather than just inheriting one from the previous administration," Kind said. "And I would assume that part of that is making sure they have all the tools in their arsenal to do that, and I would assume TPA is one of those."
Both Kind and Larsen supported the May 10, 2007, agreement as a strong template for a new TPA bill. The 2007 deal strengthened negotiating objectives in the areas of environment and labor in order to make three pending trade deals more palatable for Democrats and also made changes to intellectual property provisions on data exclusivity, patent linkage and patent extensions that were meant to make generic medicines more accessible in developing countries.
"I thought we made progress in the Bush administration [on May 10] and that helped a lot of Democratic members get to a comfortable place not only in support those agreements, but future ones as well," Kind said. "I think the template has been established."
Kind hinted that additional changes might need to be made in the area of digital trade, given the ascendance of the Internet in the decade since the passage of the last TPA bill.
Larsen echoed Kind's points on the May 10 template, calling it "a fine place to start." He said the fact that many chapters or U.S. proposals in the TPP go beyond the May 10 standard reflect the lessons learned by trade negotiators since the controversial North American Free Trade Agreement.