By Doug Palmer
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A leading U.S. business group urged President Barack Obama on Thursday to build on trade successes of the past two years by seeking legislation that would allow him to submit trade deals to Congress for straight up-or-down votes without amendments.
"I think the message to the president and the administration is: It's time to engage the business community and Congress in discussions about Trade Promotion Authority," Myron Brilliant, senior vice president at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, told reporters at a briefing on the group's 2013 trade priorities.
Congress last passed a Trade Promotion Authority, or TPA, bill in 2002 and that was after a bitter fight in the U.S. House of Representatives. Only 25 of approximately 210 House Democrats joined Republicans in voting for the legislation, reflecting the strong opposition of the AFL-CIO labor federation and others on the left who associate trade agreements with job losses.
The legislation, by barring amendments to trade agreements, has been considered essential to encouraging other countries to make their best offers in talks with the United States.
It also gives Congress the opportunity to set negotiating objectives for the White House in areas such as labor, environment, agriculture and intellectual property rights.
The law expired in June 2007 and Obama has never asked for a renewal, to the frustration of many Republicans and some Democrats who favor an activist U.S. trade agenda.
Even so, his administration has been negotiating a proposed regional free trade agreement called the Trans-Pacific Partnership with 10 other countries. It also is widely expected to launch talks with the 27-nation European Union this year.
Brilliant argued the White House needs TPA to complete the talks on both those initiatives and others such as a proposed International Services Agreement.
Both U.S. Senator Max Baucus, the Democratic chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, and Representative David Camp, the Republican chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, have identified renewal of Trade Promotion Authority as one of their top priorities this year.
But the White House, which is in the midst of finding new leaders for both the U.S. Trade Representative's office and the Commerce Department, has not sent a clear signal that it is ready to push for the legislation.
"The administration recognizes trade promotion authority as an important tool to support trade policy. During this administration, USTR has consulted closely with Congress on trade issues. We will continue to do so on the range of issues, including TPA, as appropriate," an administration official said.
Republican President George W. Bush used the 2002 legislation to negotiate trade deals with Australia, Bahrain, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, South Korea, Mexico, Morocco, Nicaragua, Oman, Panama, Peru and Singapore.
Congress passed the last of those trade deals - the Colombia, Panama and South Korea pacts - on broadly bipartisan votes in 2011 after the Obama administration negotiated a number of changes to address Democratic concerns.
During a period of gridlock on other issues, Republicans and Democrats also came together last year to renew the charter of the U.S. Export-Import Bank and approve "permanent" normal trade relations with former Cold War foe Russia.
U.S. Chamber of Commerce officials said that track record makes them optimistic of bipartisan support in Congress for Trade Promotion Authority if Obama makes it a priority.
But they also acknowledge the somewhat "abstract" legislation is harder to sell to many Democrats than a specific agreement with tangible trade benefits.
(Reporting By Doug Palmer; Editing by Doina Chiacu)