WASHINGTON - Congressional leaders say they will bring sweeping trade legislation forward in April, including the Trans-Pacific Partnership that covers Japan and 10 other countries. The stated goal is to lower trade barriers and allow more exports from the United States and imports to this country from the region.
But the legislation is getting a cool reception from Maine’s congressional delegation.
President Obama has been lobbying members of Congress, giving speeches around the country, and recently used his weekly radio address to urge passage of the yet-to-be-released trade deal.
"Now, I am the first to admit that past trade deals have not always lived up to the hype, and that is why we have successfully gone after countries that break the rules at our workers expense," Obama said. "But that doesn’t mean we should close ourselves off from new opportunities and sit on the sidelines while other countries write our future for us."
The trade deals will set limits on tariffs and duties set by the trading nations. And the president wants them to get what's called "fast track authority," where Congress must vote a deal up or down with no opportunity to amend the deal as negotiated.
That does not sit well with Maine Sen. Angus King, an independent who caucuses with the Democrats. "I have got a lot of questions about the bill and I am going to be very reluctant about providing what called 'fast track authority' until I know what is being fast tracked."
The trade negotiations have been conducted secretly, with only a few details leaking out of the negotiations. Republican Sen. Susan Collins shares King’s skepticism of the process.
"You can count me as being skeptical about trade promotion authority," she says."I am still going to take a look at exactly what the provisions are, but I don’t like cutting Congress out of the progress."
Collins says leaders changing the name of the process from 'fast track' to 'trade promotion' authority does not lessen her the concern that the process is shifting too much trade authority to the president at the expense of Congress.
That concern is shared by 2nd District Republican Congressman Bruce Poliquin. "We want to make sure that we give the executive branch the ability to negotiate trade agreements quickly, but that there is plenty of oversight from Congress to make sure we are standing up for our constituents and make sure they are protected fairly."
Poliquin says past trade deals have not been fair to many industries in the United States and in Maine. And on that point, 1st District Democratic Congresswoman Chellie Pingree agrees.
"There are enormous problems with it," she says. "Certainly a state like Maine suffered in our manufacturing base going back to trade agreements like NAFTA and many of the things this current proposal I think could override our environmental laws, public health protections."
Even after the details of the trade deal are released, there will be months of hearings on the proposal, with votes not likely until the summer or fall.