U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai on Thursday rebuffed appeals from senators to begin negotiating trade agreements that would cut tariffs on U.S. agricultural exports. 

“At this moment we do not have tariff liberalization negotiations going on with a partner,” Tai told the Senate Finance Committee.

Tai left open the possibility for that to change, saying she was “open-minded” about the possibility, but she also went into lengthy explanations as to why the Biden administration has not carried on the tradition of seeking tariff cuts from foreign trading partners.

“The traditional approach to free trade agreements being comprehensively tariff-liberalizing has led to winners and losers,” Tai said in response to questions from Sen. John Thune, R-S.D. “While it has been, in general, very good for our agricultural producers, the other parts of our economy feel like the playing field is not level.”

But that left many unsatisfied at the Thursday hearing.

Sen. Mike Crapo of Idaho, the top Republican on the committee, stressed that “American ranchers and farmers produce the world’s best and safest food and exported $196 billion in 2022. They can accomplish even more if we eliminate the high tariffs and unscientific restrictions posing as safety measures. The only tariff reduction flagged in the President’s agenda is that India will reduce its tariff on pecans to a still overly-restrictive 30%.”

Farm groups have been some of the biggest supporters of free trade agreements that have cut tariffs globally and reduced tariffs on U.S. beef, pork, rice and many other commodities, but labor unions and others have also been some of the biggest opponents. The AFL-CIO was a strident opponent of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which the U.S. dropped out of in 2017 before it was initiated.

Tai also reiterated the Biden administration still has no intention of including tariff reduction in the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework, which it is now negotiating with Vietnam, Australia, Brunei, India, Indonesia, Japan, South Korea, Malaysia, New Zealand, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Fiji.

Crapo lamented the fact that the U.S. won’t be going after Vietnamese tariffs, which remain high on U.S. poultry, dairy, beef, potatoes and apples. By contrast, he said China and the European Union have negotiated trade deals with Vietnam that lower all of those tariffs.

“While some of the tariff reductions in the EU and Chinese deals (with Vietnam) will take time to phase in fully, we lose ground every day that we remain on the sidelines,” Crapo said.

Several other senators demanded that the Biden administration support congressional re-authorization of trade promotion authority, legislation that allows the president to submit a trade agreement to Capitol Hill for an up-or-down vote without the threat of Congress amending it.

TPA, they said, is crucial to the success of any tariff-slashing trade agreement that lawmakers are demanding. And first in line for a trade deal with the U.S. should be the UK, said Thune and Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va.

USA Rice President and CEO Betsy Ward told Agri-Pulse her group is “hopeful that the administration will soon engage Congress regarding reauthorization of trade promotion authority so that we can put some comprehensive agreements on the table, namely a U.S.-UK free trade agreement.”