By  on January 26, 2011

WASHINGTON — Sens. Rob Portman (R., Ohio), a former U.S. Trade Representative, and Joe Lieberman (I., Conn.) introduced a bill Tuesday that would restore President Obama’s trade promotion authority and give the U.S. more leverage in negotiating trade deals.

Under the rules of Trade Promotion Authority, formerly called “fast-track authority,” Congress does not have the ability to amend trade pacts negotiated by the executive branch and can only vote up or down on them.

“Trade Promotion Authority will give the United States a strong hand at the negotiating table to get the best possible deal for American businesses,” said Portman.

Kevin Burke, president and chief executive officer of the American Apparel & Footwear Association, said Portman, who served as a United States Trade Representative under President George W. Bush, has the “pedigree” to give the legislation some momentum.

Burke said that without the authority, trade agreements “get watered down or amended [in the current trade environment] based on what Congress wants to do with them, and that is problematic.”

“It gives a great deal of leverage to the administration, and also confidence to our trading partners, who know that when [the administration] negotiates a trade deal, that is the agreement that will be voted on in the House and Senate,” Burke said.

The trade authority expired in 2007, while Bush was still in office, but many in the trade community said it would have to be renewed in order for the U.S. to successfully negotiate and conclude the Doha Round of global trade talks, which have stalled for the past 10 years over agricultural subsidies.

“If we look at Doha, one of the concerns sometimes whispered around in Geneva is that the U.S. has no leverage to ask for changes in some of the draft text when we don’t even have assurances we could bring an agreement back to Congress and not have it rewritten,” said Julia Hughes, president of the U.S. Association of Importers of Textiles & Apparel. “TPA would strengthen the U.S. position in the Doha negotiations.”

Hughes added that TPA will also be helpful in the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations. TPP is a regional trade agreement being negotiated between the U.S., Vietnam, Singapore, Australia, Peru, Brunei, New Zealand and Chile.

The legislation would also express Congress’ support for passing three pending trade deals with South Korea, Panama and Colombia, but Congress would have to approve each pact in separate legislation.

House Ways & Means chairman Dave Camp (R., Mich.), who held his first trade hearing Tuesday on the pending trade deals in the new Congress, urged the Obama administration to send all three to Congress in the next six months. But Obama, who could lay out a vision for trade in his State of the Union address Tuesday, has so far only made South Korea a priority.

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