United States Trade Representative Michael Froman testified yesterday before the Senate Finance Committee on the President’s 2014 trade policy agenda, saying that the administration is pursuing the most ambitious trade agenda in decades with the negotiation of high-standard trade agreements in the Asia-Pacific region and with the European Union.  “Together these negotiations would allow us to access economies representing nearly two-thirds of global GDP,” Froman said in his written testimony.

Froman said that, during the President’s visit to Japan last week, the United States and Japan crossed an important threshold in bilateral market access discussions and have identified a path forward on agriculture and autos–two of the most challenging areas of our negotiations with Japan.  “Although work remains to close the gaps, this milestone achievement–spurred by the President’s direct engagement–will provide signficant momentum to the overall Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) negotiations,” Froman said.  Although there is no final agreement with Japan, Froman said the headway should allow chief negotiations from the 12 countries involved in TPP talks to push the deal closer to the finish line when they meet in Vietnam in mid-May.

Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR), the new chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, said that the TPP agreement needed “unprecedented transparency” to have any chance to succeed in Congress.  Wyden pushed Froman to make a commitment to make the text of a proposed agreement available to the public before Obama signs it, although Froman made no promises.

Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY) told Ambassador Froman that TPP would not win congressional approval unless it addresses alleged currency manipulation in Japan.  Froman did admit that currency issues have not been discussed yet in TPP talks.

Froman also discussed Trade Promotion Authority (TPA), pointing out that the last TPA legislation was passed over a decade ago, and that the administration looks forward to working with  Congress as a whole to secure TPA.  TPA gives the president the authority to negotiate a trade deal that only faces an up-or-down vote in Congress with no amendments. Without that authority, it is more difficult for other countries involved in trade talks to make political decisions.

However, the committee’s top-ranking Republican Senator Orrin Hatch (UT) questioned the administration’s commitment to securing trade promotion authority.  Hatch is a co-sponsor of legislation to renew TPA.  “The political clock is ticking and it won’t be long before we lose the small window we have to pass significant trade legislation this year,” Hatch said at the hearing.  “If we want trade promotion authority this year I believe that we need to act by June,” he said.  Labor groups and lawmakers in the Democratic Party oppose TPP, arguing it could leave U.S. workers vulnerable to competition from countries with lower labor costs.