By Doug Palmer
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - An influential Democratic U.S. senator said on Wednesday he was working on a bipartisan bill to boost President Barack Obama's ability to negotiate trade deals, while Republicans made clear that more White House involvement is needed to pass the measure.
"I would like to see a bipartisan TPA (trade promotion authority) bill introduced by June," Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus said at a hearing on the Trans-Pacific Partnership pact, a proposed free trade agreement among 12 countries on both sides of the Pacific.
Approving the measure would help the White House conclude the three-year-old Asia-Pacific trade talks, which were expanded on Saturday to include Japan, Baucus said.
The Montana Democrat, who has been a driving force in Congress behind trade legislation, announced on Tuesday that he plans to retire at the end of his term next year.
Passing trade promotion authority this year would be a major achievement, setting the stage for votes on both the Trans-Pacific Partnership pact and another proposed free trade agreement with the European Union.
Representative Dave Camp, the Republican chairman of the House of Representatives Ways and Means Committee, also wants to move quickly on a bill on trade promotion authority, said a spokeswoman for that panel.
Karan Bhatia, a former U.S. trade official now a senior counsel and vice president at General Electric Co, underscored the need to pass TPA to finish the Trans-Pacific deal, which is expected to cover about 40 percent of global economic output.
"If the goal is to close this agreement done this year, I think we need to get TPA and we need to get it relatively soon," Bhatia referring to the current target of finishing talks on the Trans-Pacific pact in 2013.
Trade promotion authority, also known as "fast-track" trade legislation, allows the White House to submit trade deals to Congress for straight up-or-down votes without any amendments.
The legislation, which expired in 2007, is considered essential to assure other countries that any deals they reach with the United States will not be picked apart by Congress.
Staff on both the Senate Finance Committee and the House of Representatives Ways and Means Committee have already begun work on TPA legislation, which could face strong resistance from many Democrats who believe trade deals lead to U.S. job losses.
A long-time critic of trade agreements pounced on Baucus' statement, signally the potentially tough fight ahead.
"Fast track is inappropriate for the realities of 21st century trade agreements, which go beyond the scope of traditional trade matters and affects wide swaths of domestic policy unrelated to trade," said Lori Wallach, director of Public Citizen's Global Trade Watch.
Senator Robert Casey, a Pennsylvania Democrat, said he had a "high degree of skepticism" about the Trans-Pacific Partnership pact because of the potential for job losses in the U.S. auto sector and other industries.
Obama has not formally requested TPA from Congress, although acting U.S. Trade Representative Demetrios Marantis told the Senate Finance Committee last month the administration was prepared to work with lawmakers on a bill.
Senator John Thune, a South Dakota Republican, said he worried that White House foot-dragging on the legislation could lead to delays in concluding the Trans-Pacific talks.
"We know renewal of TPA is likely to be contentious and it's going to take time, obviously, for Congress to work through the process," Thune said, urging the White House to put a greater priority on passing the bill.
Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah, the senior Republican on the Finance Committee, underscored those concerns.
"I have yet to see any real commitment on the part of the White House to achieving (TPA's) quick consideration and approval in Congress," he said.
"A formal request from the administration for TPA would send a strong signal to our negotiating partners and the proponents of the Trans-Pacific Partnership that the president is serious about making sure the rhetoric surrounding the agreement meets the reality of the negotiating table," Hatch said.
(Reporting by Doug Palmer; Editing by Neil Stempleman and Lisa Shumaker)