WASHINGTON, March 26, 2015 – Republicans are expressing optimism that they can reach a deal with a key Democrat that’s critical to wrapping up a Pacific Rim trade agreement.
House Ways and Means Chairman Paul Ryan and the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, are negotiating with Ron Wyden, D-Ore., over final details of a bill that would provide President Obama with Trade Promotion Authority (TPA), the fast-track process needed to ratify new agreements such as the pending Trans-Pacific Partnership.
“We’re not there with trade yet, but I do believe we’re making good progress,” Ryan, R-Wis., told reporters after the House finished up its legislative work ahead of the two-week Easter recess.The hangup over TPA has reportedly centered on the congressional process that would have to be followed to get to a final up-or-down vote.
“The three of us, ourselves and our staffs, are in constant contact with each other, trying to iron that out,” Ryan said of the negotiations. He declined to discuss the details of the talks, but added, “The fact is we’re meeting, we’re talking, we’re making progress.”
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said earlier this week that he wants the Finance Committee to approve a TPA bill “very quickly after we come back” from the Easter recess. Hatch, meanwhile, said he was preparing one last concession to Wyden with an eye toward having a bill finalized after the recess.
Hatch said Wyden has assured him he wants to vote for a TPA bill but is trying to get as much as can in the negotiations.
Lawmakers have their eyes on at least two upcoming events: a visit to Washington in late April by the prime minister of Japan, Shinzo Abe, and a ministerial meeting of the 12 Trans-Pacific Partnership countries in May. “We’ve got exterior deadlines that I think we need to be mindful of,” Ryan said.
Japan is believed to be waiting on Congress to take action on TPA before making critical concessions necessary to finish the TPP talks, including lowering its barriers to U.S. agricultural commodities.
Abe is scheduled to address a joint session of Congress, and it would be awkward for lawmakers if the TPA talks are stalled. Ryan brought up the Abe visit in discussing the TPA timeline with reporters, but he stopped short of promising to have a bill ready by then.
“He’s coming and that’s important,” Ryan said of Abe.
Ryan said Obama would be critical to winning Democratic votes, and the lawmaker praised the administration’s effort so far.
“The administration has actually been fairly productive on this,” he said. “Everyone is communicating well with one another. We know where the issues are, and we’re trying to see if we can complete the circle and get a process that we all agree is a good process."
The ranking Democrat on Ways and Means, trade skeptic Sander Levin of Michigan, has not been part of the talks.
Along with TPA, Ryan said his committee also is preparing to move bills to extend the African Growth and Opportunity Act and the Generalized System of Preferences, both of which provide duty-free treatment to select countries. U.S. chicken producers have been pressing South Africa to lower its barriers to American poultry as a condition of staying part of AGOA.
Congress also is overdue to write a new miscellaneous tariff bill (MTB), but Ryan said that is not on the near-term agenda.
MTB bills incorporate a variety of temporary duty suspension requests from individual members of Congress, but the legislation has recently gotten sidetracked because of the congressional earmark ban. MTB is important to a variety of sectors, including the pesticide industry, which wants relief from tariffs on imported chemicals.
On other issues:
-Ryan continues to hold up hope on corporate tax reform. But he indicated that it require a deal to lower tax rates on so-called pass-throughs, entities such as partnerships and S corporations that are widely used by small businesses to avoid paying taxes twice on business profits. Profits are taxed at the individual level.
-Revenue from a tax bill would be the preferred way to pay for reauthorizing surface transportation programs, Ryan said. The highway trust fund is due to run out of money this summer. He said he doesn’t have another alternative way of funding transportation.“We’ll look at all options. Everything is on the table except for raising taxes,” he said.
-The Export-Import Bank should be allowed to expire instead of being reauthorized, he said. Conservatives call the bank a form of “crony capitalism” that primarily benefits large, politically motivated corporations. Ryan said the bank’s work with small businesses is a recent, “cosmetic thing.”
“Why should we have taxpayers subsidize loans to less than credit-worthy countries?” he said.