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Senator puts substance over speed on fast-track trade power

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden (D-OR), who is attending his first hearing as chairman after the retirement of Sen. Max Baucus (
Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden (D-OR), who is attending his first hearing as chairman after the retirement of Sen. Max Baucus (

By Krista Hughes

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A senior Democratic senator said on Thursday he would take the time needed to put together a bill granting the White House power to fast-track trade agreements while Republicans called for swift action.

Senate Finance Committee chairman Ron Wyden, a Democrat, said he was still mulling how best to modernize fast-track rules, which many see as crucial to the United States' ability to wrap up talks on a 12-nation Pacific trade pact.

Fast-track power sets objectives for U.S. trade negotiators and lays out how they should interact with lawmakers and the public, in exchange for an up-and-down vote in Congress.

Wyden, who took over in February as chairman of the committee, declined to commit to a timeline for what he has dubbed "smart-track."

"We are going to move as quickly as we can to do trade right," he told reporters after a committee hearing on trade, where some Democrats pushed for rules against currency manipulation to be included in trade agreements.

"There are a lot of ways you can throw something together but given the importance .. you take the time to do it right."

The slow progress on fast-track has frustrated Republicans who worked with Wyden's predecessor on a bipartisan bill introduced to Congress in January, which is stalled ahead of November midterm elections.

Republicans are generally supportive of trade deals, which have been opposed by some Democratic power bases - unions, environmentalists and consumer groups who worry about lost jobs and weaker labor and pollution laws.

"The political clock is ticking and it won't be long until we will lose the small window we have to pass significant trade legislation this year," said Orrin Hatch, the committee's top Republican.

"If we want trade promotion authority this year I believe that we need to act by June."

U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman said his office was prepared to work with the committee "as and when" it was ready to move ahead with the legislative process.

The Republican-controlled House is unwilling to push on with the fast-track bill until the Senate, where Democrats have the majority, agrees to support it too.

CURRENCY CONTROVERSY

During the hearing, several senators warned that Senate Democrats would not support the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) unless it contained rules against artificially weak currencies.

"We feel very strongly about this, so when we talk about trying to pass TPP, I'm not sure how that passes," said Democrat Debbie Stabenow, whose state of Michigan is home to major carmakers worried about losing market share to Japan.

Froman said the USTR was concerned about currencies and wanted a level playing field for U.S. firms. The administration was talking to Japan but currencies had not been discussed as part of the TPP negotiations, he said.

Autos are a key sticking point in U.S. bilateral trade talks with Japan, along with U.S. exports of farm goods such as beef, pork and wheat, which Japan sees as sensitive.

After talks between U.S. President Barack Obama and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe last week, both sides said they had agreed on a path forward but more work was needed.

Wyden said he thought U.S. officials made the right call.

"The administration made the judgment that no deal is better than a bad deal and I think they were right," he said.

The United States hopes to complete the TPP, which includes Canada, Mexico, New Zealand, Malaysia and others, by the end of this year. The next negotiating round is due in mid-May.

(Reporting by Krista Hughes; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Cynthia Osterman)

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