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Momentum builds for "fast track" trade legislation

Sen. Max Baucus, (D-MT) is questioned by media at the U.S. Capitol in Washington December 31, 2012. REUTERS/Mary F. Calvert
Sen. Max Baucus, (D-MT) is questioned by media at the U.S. Capitol in Washington December 31, 2012. REUTERS/Mary F. Calvert

By Doug Palmer

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus said on Tuesday he hoped to pass legislation this year to boost the White House's ability to negotiate trade agreements, reviving a politically divisive measure that expired in 2007.

Acting U.S. Trade Representative Demetrios Marantis also said the administration was prepared to work with lawmakers to pass the bill known as "trade promotion authority," or TPA.

"We've heard your calls on this issue loud and clear and we're ready to begin our work," Marantis told Senator Orrin Hatch, the Finance Committee's top Republican, at a hearing on the White House's trade agenda.

President Barack Obama did not seek trade promotion authority during his first four years in office, frustrating Republicans and some Democrats like Baucus who favor an active agenda of trade negotiations.

The White House needs the bill now because it hopes to finish talks on the proposed "Trans-Pacific Partnership" trade deal with 10 other countries by year end.

It also plans to launch free trade negotiations with the 27-nation European Union in coming months.

"I take (the administration's new interest in the bill) as a sign of progress, but we have already wasted four years. TPA could have been done a long time ago. We can't afford to waste any more time," said Hatch of Utah.

The law is also known as "fast track" trade legislation because it allows the White House to submit trade deals to Congress for straight up-or-down votes without any amendments.

It is considered essential to assuring other countries that any deal they reach with U.S. trade negotiators won't be picked apart by lawmakers during the approval process.

Congress last passed TPA legislation in 2002, following a bitter fight. Republicans, who generally favor free trade, passed the bill over the objections of Democrats, many of whom blame past trade agreements for U.S. job losses.

Baucus said he wanted to renew both TPA and trade adjustment assistance (TAA), a federal program that provides funding to help retrain workers that have lost their jobs because of import competition or factories moving overseas.

"TPA and TAA are two sides of the same coin making trade work. We need to renew and extend both of them this year," the Montana Democrat said.

(Reporting by Doug Palmer; Editing by David Storey and Paul Simao)

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