Obama presses for “fast track” trade powers, climate action

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Obama presses for “fast track” trade powers, climate action

Obama presses for “fast track” trade powers, climate action
Photo credit: AP

US President Barack Obama made a public call on Tuesday for Congress to pass “fast track” trade powers, as part of a larger effort to advance ongoing negotiations with the EU and with 11 Asia-Pacific countries. Climate action was another key component of his State of the Union address, which comes after what analysts generally say was the toughest year of Obama’s presidency.

“We need to work together on tools like bipartisan trade promotion authority to protect our workers, protect our environment and open new markets to new goods stamped ‘Made in the USA’,” he told Congress. “Listen, China and Europe aren’t standing on the sidelines; and neither should we.”

“Fast track” powers, known formally as Trade Promotion Authority, allows the US executive branch to negotiate international trade deals and then send them to Congress for a straight up-or-down vote, without amendments. The legislation, which expired in 2007, also outlines Washington’s negotiating objectives in trade agreements.

Trade observers had been watching closely to see if Obama would call for Trade Promotion Authority in his speech, given the criticism from some Republicans that the White House has been too passive in pushing for “fast track” powers.

However, analysts have been quick to note that the president did not endorse outright the draft legislation that is currently being considered in Congress, which already promises to be controversial.

Getting members of Obama’s own Democratic Party to back TPA in any form is likely to be an especially difficult bargain, with many of them concerned both over the transparency of the negotiating process and the potential for some sectors of the US economy to experience negative impacts from lower trade barriers.

The fractious political climate has also raised questions over how many Republicans – who have traditionally shown more support for TPA – will back the measure.

The Senate Finance Committee has already held a hearing on the draft TPA legislation that was submitted earlier this month. However, the timing for next steps is unclear, given the expected departure of committee chair Max Baucus. Incoming chairman Ron Wyden has indicated that he is not ready to back the current TPA draft.

Meanwhile, in the House’s Ways and Means Committee, the timeline for advancing “fast track” renewal is even less certain. While Chairman Dave Camp, a Republican, has introduced the legislation for consideration, his Democratic counterpart in the committee – ranking member Sander Levin – has openly opposed it. Levin says he plans to introduce a rival version in the near future, without specifying a timeframe.

TPP, TTIP timeline

Trade has become an increasingly prominent part of the Obama Administration’s second term agenda, particularly as the 2015 deadline for the president’s pledge of doubling US exports from 2009 levels draws ever nearer. The White House has highlighted its planned deal with the EU, along with the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) talks, as key initiatives for fulfilling that promise.

The US and its 11 Pacific Rim partners in the TPP talks are aiming to finish their negotiations in the coming months, with ministers next slated to meet in Singapore in February to try to clear up some of their outstanding differences. The timeframe for the US-EU Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) is less clear, given that the talks are still in their relatively early stages, though officials from both sides say that they want to conclude a deal quickly.

The ability to send completed trade deals – such as the TPP or the US-EU pact – to Capitol Hill for a clean vote is seen as key for the US’ trading partners in order to avoid having these agreements unravelled in Washington.

Obama: shift to clean energy economy requires “tough choices”

The State of the Union address, which is the US president’s most high-profile speech of the year, comes at a difficult time in the Obama presidency, following a year marked by Congressional infighting over subjects ranging from the US budget and debt ceiling to the implementation of healthcare reform. These difficulties, along with Obama’s persistently low approval ratings – which have been in the 40s – have been blamed for stalling efforts at passing major legislation in Washington.

A year ago, Obama made clear that he was ready to take a series of executive actions aimed at tackling climate change, in light of the continued difficulties in advancing climate legislation in the highly-polarised Congress. A few months later, he unveiled various measures that he was preparing to take as part of a broad “climate action plan” – such as imposing federal carbon limits on new and existing power plants – that would not require the approval of US lawmakers.

The decision to bypass Congress in this area had riled some lawmakers. However, Obama defended these moves on Tuesday, noting that western communities in the US are already feeling the impacts of a changing climate.

“The shift to a cleaner energy economy won’t happen overnight, and it will require some tough choices along the way,” he said. “But the debate is settled. Climate change is a fact.”

Along with defending his June climate plan, Obama also outlined a series of other goals for the year, such as reducing red tape for building new factories that can use natural gas; taking executive action to protect federal lands; and pursuing a “smarter tax policy” that would give less money to fossil fuel industry and more to renewable technologies, such as solar. The US President also pledged to set new truck standards to improve fuel efficiency, which would be announced in the coming months.