Lawmakers and agricultural stakeholders have been ratcheting up efforts to get congressional passage of “fast-track” trade promotion authority (TPA) – giving President Obama the opportunity to seek an up or down vote on new trade agreements that could dramatically expand agricultural exports.

But they’ve run into a major roadblock in the shape of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., who has made it abundantly clear that he and a few other Senate Democrats oppose the move. Strange as it may seem, more Republicans than Democrats appear to be supporting the president on this issue.

Reid met with Obama on Monday, but told reporters afterward that TPA was not discussed and that he was not “in the doghouse” over the matter.

The bipartisan Congressional Trade Priorities Act (S. 1900, H.R. 3830), was offered in January by Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., and House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp, R-Mich., and would put trade deals before Congress on a straight up-or-down vote without amendments.

But Baucus, who is expected to be confirmed shortly as the next U.S. ambassador to China, will no longer be a driving force behind TPA in the Senate and his likely replacement, Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., has not yet grabbed the TPA by the horns.

After a recent meeting with Wyden, Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, said Wyden mentioned several initiatives for 2014, but TPA was not one of them.

Still, Grassley said, the president will have to get involved on TPA if it is to pass the Senate.

“So far he’s let Sen. Reid dictate his agenda. If the president got engaged, there would be 60 votes (for passage) in the Senate,” Grassley added.

Obama most recently offered his support for the legislation during the State of the Union Address. Despite that, Reid said the bill was “controversial” and that “everyone would be well advised just to not push this right now.”

TPA approval is seen as crucial to wrapping up the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) talks with 11 Pacific Rim nations, as well as the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) with the 28-member European Union. The treaties would create the world’s biggest free-trade zones.

Baucus and supporters say the legislation would provide for tougher, enforceable rules against barriers to U.S. agriculture. “In short, this isn’t the same old TPA,” he said.

Opposition to TPA often focuses on concerns about labor and environmental protections. In the House, Reps. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., Louise Slaughter, D-N.Y., and George Miller, D-Calif., have said TPA would enable the president “to ram through far-reaching, secretly negotiated trade deals like the TPP that extend well beyond traditional trade matters.”

In support of TPA, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said Monday that Republicans applauded Obama for noting the TPA bill could help prevent other countries from taking trade-related jobs from the United States. “He’s absolutely right,” McConnell said. “But, now the president’s own party is standing in the way of getting anything done.”

Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, took to the Senate floor late Tuesday to discuss efforts to renew TPA, which expired about seven years ago. Hatch said the trade agreements and negotiations “represent what is the most ambitious trade agenda in our nation’s history.” Hatch said U.S. trading partners will not put their best deal on the table unless they know that the United States can deliver on what is promised in negotiations.

Floyd D. Gaibler, director of trade policy and biotechnology at the U.S. Grains Council, said the Senate Finance Committee likely will have to start over on the TPA legislation, considering the departure of Baucus.

“I think a lot of people think this is an uphill climb… especially in an election year,” Gaibler said. “The speculation is there will be a lot of heavy lifting.”

Gaibler said it is looking like bill passage may not happen until after the mid-term elections. Further, he does not see TTIP getting done this year, but rather spilling into 2015.

Pro-TPA lobbyist groups, Gaibler said, are “working the Hill like crazy” to move the legislation. But several opposition groups, including the AFL-CIO and the Organic Consumers Association, are working against the TPA legislation.

Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO, said “warmed-over” trade deals will not raise U.S. wages or reduce the deficit. “The United States is long overdue for an overhaul of its trade priorities and trade practices and that can only happen with an inclusive process that includes all our voices, not just the disproportionate influence of the 1 percent,” Trumka said.

Ronnie Cummins, international director of the Organic Consumers Association, said, “We must stop trade deals that would weaken U.S. and world food safety standards, threaten domestic and international food sovereignty laws, and allow transnational corporations to sue governments for alleged future lost profits.”


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