By Doug Palmer
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama's nominee to be U.S. trade representative on Thursday appeared headed for Senate approval after promising to work with Congress on major trade legislation needed by the White House to win approval of trade deals.
"If confirmed, I will engage with you to renew Trade Promotion Authority. TPA is a critical tool. I look forward to working with you to craft a bill that achieves our shared goals," Mike Froman, now the White House international economic affairs adviser, said at his confirmation hearing before the Senate Finance Committee.
Froman pledged strong enforcement of existing trade agreements and said he would press China to allow its currency to rise faster in value to eliminate what many U.S. lawmakers believe is an unfair trade advantage.
However, he stopped short of promising to push for new rules against currency manipulation in trade agreements, as more than half of the members of the House of Representatives demanded in a letter to Obama.
Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, a Montana Democrat, said Froman already has a "mastery of trade policy development and implementation" after four years of working on the issues at the White House.
"He understands the small details and he sees the big picture ... We should confirm his nomination and we should do so quickly," Baucus said.
Utah Senator Orrin Hatch, the panel's senior Republican, said he intended to vote for Froman, but chided him for the roughly $500,000 he has invested in an offshore account in the Cayman Islands.
"Mr. Froman is, in fact, the third Cabinet-level nominee this year to have made use of offshore investments and structures, despite the president's unequivocal condemnation of these types of activities during the campaign," Hatch said.
No senator at the hearing expressed concern about Froman's qualifications or indicated they intended to oppose him.
However, Senator Charles Grassley, an Iowa Republican, said he had more questions for Froman about his investments "in offshore accounts (that) the president (has) criticized."
"The White House and the nominee should help Congress and the public understand the president's double standard," Grassley said in a statement.
If confirmed for the USTR position, Froman has promised to divest the offshore account, which dates back to his days as an executive at Citigroup. He was not required by White House ethics officials to do that in his current job.
"FAST TRACK" LEGISLATION
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. It was last passed by Congress in 2002 and expired in 2007.
The White House is already negotiating one of biggest trade deals in history with 11 other countries, including Japan, in the Asia Pacific region and plans to start talks in July on an another huge deal with the European Union.
Trade promotion authority would also allow lawmakers to set negotiating objectives for those two agreements, although the White House is pushing to finish talks on the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership talks by the end of the year.
Obama did not ask for renewal of TPA during his first four years in office. Froman, under questioning from Baucus, clarified that Obama was asking for renewal now, which Hatch and a number of panel Republicans said was a welcome step.
Baucus said he hoped to win congressional approval of a bill combining trade promotion authority with Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA) in coming months.
TAA provides retraining assistance for workers that have lost jobs because of imports or factories moving overseas.
"With so many trade initiatives moving to completion and getting off the ground, we need TPA now to guide and support USTR. And we need TAA to ensure that our workforce remains ready to compete with anyone, anywhere in the world," Baucus said.
Froman fielded a number of complaints from senators about Indian government policies that they said unfairly restrict imports of U.S. goods and have invalidated patent protections for U.S. pharmaceuticals.
"We're very concerned about the innovation and the investment environment in India at the moment," Froman told the panel, saying the administration was consulting with industry about how best to the respond to the actions.
One option could be filing a case at the World Trade Organization, Froman said.
Some senators suggested that Congress should remove India from the Generalized System of Preferences program, which waives U.S. import duties on goods from developing countries.
(Reporting by Doug Palmer; Editing by Christopher Wilson)