Opposition doesn't threaten pacific trade deal, Pritzker says

Staff Writer
Columbus CEO

(c) 2013, Bloomberg News.

WASHINGTON — Bipartisan resistance in Congress to granting President Barack Obama fast-track authority to negotiate trade agreements won't jeopardize a Pacific-region trade pact, U.S. Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker said Monday.

The Obama administration has touted the benefits of the 12- nation Trans-Pacific Partnership as negotiators seek an agreement before Dec. 31 on an accord covering an area with $28 trillion in annual economic output.

"I don't think TPP is in trouble," Pritzker said during an interview at her office in Washington. She said fast-track authority, which allows the administration to negotiate trade pacts that lawmakers can't amend, is "ultimately achievable."

While Pritzker and U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman have called for renewal of fast-track, which expired in 2007, lawmakers from both parties have said they want more say in the accord.

Earlier this month, 151 House Democrats sent a letter to Obama stating their opposition to fast-track, officially known as Trade Promotion Authority, citing lack of congressional consultation in the Pacific-rim negotiations. A group of 22 House Republicans have separately said they won't cede authority to the president to negotiate trade deals.

"We have to ramp-up what we're doing" and underscore the benefits of free-trade deals for businesses and the total economy in order to get renewal, Pritzker said.

While business leaders support Obama's trade push, they are less sanguine about the congressional hurdles.

Fast-track renewal is "faced with greater headwinds than perhaps ever in the past," John Engler, a former Republican governor of Michigan who is now president of the Business Roundtable, said in a phone interview. The Washington-based group's members include the chief executives of major U.S. companies including Boeing, Exxon Mobil and Verizon Communications.

Engler said the fact that the administration and Congress didn't work on renewing fast-track authority immediately after the United States ratified trade accords with Colombia, Panama and South Korea in 2011 makes it harder to negotiate the Pacific pact.

Pritzker pledged during her confirmation hearing in May that she would serve as a bridge between the business community and the Obama administration, after business groups complained of a strained relationship with the White House. On Nov. 14, Pritzker announced the agency's priorities — expanding trade and investment, promoting innovation and making government data more useful for companies — as part of her "Open for Business" agenda.

Engler said Pritzker is a "good advocate for business" and lauded her focus on trade.

Jay Timmons, president of the National Association of Manufacturers, a Washington-based trade group, said he would give Pritzker an "A+" for her efforts to reach out to the industry to get a sense of their concerns.

"We want to make sure that she has a very loud voice in the Cabinet Room," Timmons said in a phone interview.

Obama in 2010 set a goal of expanding U.S. exports to $3.14 trillion in value by the end of 2014, double their value during his first year in office, as worldwide demand shrank after the economic crisis. While goods and services exports have reached record levels of at least $185 billion per month this year, they're not on pace to achieve the president's goal. In 2012, U.S. exports were valued at $2.2 trillion.

"I applaud the president for setting a five-year goal, but the reality is that this is not a five-year proposition, this is about changing the DNA of American business," Pritzker said.

Export strategy "needs to be bigger than just how many dollars and how many companies," said Pritzker. "It's about changing a culture."