WASHINGTON - Legislation key to President Barack Obama's trade agenda is being welcomed by business but faces some stiff opposition from Obama's fellow Democrats.
A bill to grant the president "fast track" authority for negotiating trade deals was introduced today, co-sponsored by a senior Democrat and two key Republicans.
Fast track, which was last approved in 2002 and expired in 2007, assures that the administration can negotiate trade deals that Congress can accept or reject but cannot change.
The administration will be counting on strong support from Republicans, who are traditionally more supportive of free trade pacts than Democrats. Such bipartisanship, however, is a rarity in the divisive political atmosphere that has severely hampered Obama and last fall culminated in a partial government shutdown.
Approval of fast track would be key to adoption of a trans-Pacific trade agreement the U.S. is closing in on with 11 other nations that in all account for some 40 percent of global gross domestic product. The pact is central to the administration's policy shift toward Asia, and in its effort to drum up exports to the region's fast-growing economies.
The bill is also intended to apply to a trade pact under negotiation with the 28-member European Union.
But Rep. Sander Levin, the top Democrat on the House committee overseeing trade, quickly announced his opposition to the fast-track legislation, saying it should stipulate a more active role for Congress, allow greater scrutiny of the negotiations by lawmakers and tackle currency manipulation.
"The vast majority of Democrats feel that we need to have a much more active, vigorous role for Congress in addressing trade issues, and there needs to be much more transparency and issues like currency have to be addressed," Levin told reporters.
Lawmakers of both parties have expressed concern that trading partners such as Japan, which is part of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP, undervalue their currencies to boost their exports.
The bill's sponsors, however, contend it addresses those concerns, and establishes new goals for U.S. negotiators on digital trade, and updates those on protection of intellectual property and labor and environmental standards. They say the legislation would allow every lawmaker access to the negotiations.