Thursday January 09, 2014 | 07:17 PM

WASHINGTON – Members of Maine’s delegation are vowing to oppose legislation that would fast-track international trade agreements through Congress.

The Obama administration is finalizing negotiations on a new free-trade deal – known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP – that would eliminate tariffs and other trade barriers among the U.S. and roughly a dozen nations, most in the Asia-Pacific region.  Additionally, the administration is in early discussions on a free trade deal with European Union nations.

On Thursday, a group of lawmakers introduced a bill that could be critical to the TPP’s fate. The bill would grant President Obama “trade promotion authority,” which is Washington-speak for bypassing the political tangles that can delay or scuttle free-trade deals.

Maine’s two U.S. House members – Democratic Reps. Mike Michaud and Chellie Pingree – quickly voiced their opposition to the fast-track bill unveiled Thursday.

If granted fast-track authority, the Obama administration would send the TPP and any trade pact with the EU to Congress for an up-or-down vote without any opportunity to amend it. Without the authority, any trade agreement could be picked apart by lawmakers opposed to aspects of the deal.

In Maine, the TPP has ardent supporters and critics.

While fishermen and Southern Maine’s high-tech sector would likely expand exports to Asia-Pacific markets, companies such as sneaker-maker New Balance could be hurt by the elimination of U.S. import taxes on goods made in low-cost overseas labor markets such as Vietnam. A more comprehensive review of the issue can be found here.

Michaud, a vocal critic of free trade deals who is running for governor this year, said the bill fails to improve transparency and strengthen congressional oversight of trade pacts.

“We know what happens when Congress passes this type of legislation granting fast track,” Michaud, D-District 2, said in a statement. “Factories close, plants move overseas, and our workers are left behind. We simply can’t afford to repeat the mistakes of the past.”

Pingree, D-District 1, said the North American Free Trade Agreement that began 20 years ago this month hurt manufacturing in Maine and “wasn’t a good deal for American workers.”

"There are two major trade deals that are essentially being negotiated in secret, and fast track authority means they could be rammed through Congress without the kind of debate and transparency that's needed if we want to really see what's in these agreements," Pingree said in a statement.  "Congress should be figuring out how to create jobs here at home, not ship them overseas."

More than 170 Democrats and Republicans (but most of those Democrats) have said they are opposed to fast tracking trade deals unless Congress has a more “meaningful role” in drafting the agreements, according to The Associated Press.

Maine Sen. Angus King, an independent serving his first term, has also expressed strong skepticism about whether free-trade deals benefit states such as Maine and indicated that he would oppose granting the president fast-track authority on trade deals.

King's spokesman, Scott Ogden, said the senator would review the bill.

"He is, however, fundamentally opposed to any trade promotion authority that is not fully transparent or that attempts to marginalize Congress," Ogden said in an email. "Additionally, Senator King wants to thoroughly review the Trans-Pacific Partnership to ensure that it is fair for Maine and levels the playing field for the state’s manufacturers and businesses."

Maine Sen. Susan Collins, a veteran Republican, has also expressed concerns about the TPP’s impacts on New Balance and about foreign currency manipulation in TPP member nations. She has voted on both sides of past free trade agreements. In 2011, she opposed an measure that would have granted the Obama administration fast-track authority through 2013.

Collins' office did not immediately respond to requests for comment on Thursday.

Supporters of the fast-track proposal said the bill provides additional congressional oversight while helping ensure the success of a free trade deal they say will boost U.S. exports and create American jobs.

“The TPA legislation that we are introducing today will make sure that these trade deals get done, and get done right," Sen. Max Baucus, a bill co-sponsor and chairman of the powerful Senate Finance Committee, said in a statement. "This is our opportunity to tell the administration – and our trading partners – what Congress’ negotiating priorities are.”

 

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Kevin Miller is Washington bureau chief for the Portland Press Herald and MaineToday Media. He has worked as a journalist in Maine for 6 ½ years, covering the environment, politics and the State House. Before arriving in Maine, he wrote about politics, government and education for newspapers in Virginia and Maryland.
Kevin can be reached at 317-6256 or kmiller@mainetoday.com

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