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Senate's new finance cop, Oregon's Wyden, holds keys to Biden trade agenda

EconomyMar 19, 2021 10:45AM ET
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© Reuters. U.S. Senate panel holds hearing on Biden's trade nominee

By David Lawder

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden, a Democrat who has been called both pro-trade and pro-labor, now holds major sway over President Joe Biden's trade agenda, with his buy-in needed to advance trade agreements in Congress.

But what Wyden doesn't want, he told Reuters in a recent interview, is sweeping new trade deals at the moment.

"I'm making the case, and you'll hear it when we're talking about Biden's Build Back Better agenda, that tougher trade enforcement is going to be a bedrock principle," said the Oregon Democrat.

In particular, Wyden said he will be a "watchdog" on Mexico's compliance with stronger labor standards in the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement, through a new factory-level inspection mechanism he helped design. He is also calling for a tough stance on China, particularly against forced labor.

Like Biden, and many in Congress, Wyden's views on the benefits of free trade have shifted in recent years. In 2015, he brokered the current "fast track" negotiating authority that enabled the Obama administration to strike the 12-country Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal. He took heat for that effort from the left, with union groups protesting outside his Oregon home.

"What I came away with is that if you really want to rally workers and communities that have been hard hit (by trade), you’ve got to say that you’re going to do more for enforcement because that’s how you get a positive impact for workers and producers,” he said.

While Wyden's trade to-do list often overlaps with Biden campaign trade talking points, there are differences.    

Wyden told Reuters that he won't sacrifice any American jobs to carbon border adjustment taxes, which are being considered by the administration as a way to push polluting countries to cut carbon emissions.

Wyden, who has served in the Senate since 1996, later clarified his comment to add: "I will only consider a carbon tax if it includes a well-designed border adjustment, to ensure American workers are on a level playing field with overseas competitors."

He will defend safe-harbor protections for U.S. technology companies and their high-paying jobs -- many in his home state of Oregon -- at a time when they are under pressure from tax authorities and regulators worldwide, as Biden's Treasury secretary, Janet Yellen, negotiates a deal on digital taxes.

Trade Promotion Authority, the "fast-track" negotiating legislation, expires on July 1, but don't expect Wyden to rush to renew it.

    "I don't see TPA being a huge priority coming out of the gate right now," Wyden said. "I want results for workers and their families, not more process."


Wyden's home state of Oregon has often been in what he calls "the winner's circle" of trade, where he wants to put more Americans.

Oregon's massive exports of semiconductors, semiconductor manufacturing equipment, wheat and fertilizer ingredients produced a state international goods trade surplus of $7.61 billion in 2020, according to U.S. Census Bureau data. By comparison, California had a trade deficit of about $240 billion last year.

Intel Corp (NASDAQ:INTC) has nearly 21,000 well-paid workers in Oregon, making it the state's largest corporate employer. Footwear giant Nike (NYSE:NKE) based near Portland, is both a major U.S. importer and local employer with some 12,000 Oregon workers.

At the same time, Wyden, a 6-foot-4 senator who often jokes about his failed dreams to play in the National Basketball Association, has been a staunch defender of Oregon's lumber industry, applauding the Trump administration's tariffs on Canadian softwood lumber.

"Senator Wyden tends to be a bridge between people who are free-trade fundamentalists and those who want a worker-focused approach," said Jamieson Greer, a trade lawyer who served as chief of staff for former U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer during the Trump administration.

Wyden calls Katherine Tai, who was sworn in as the first Asian-American woman to serve as USTR on Thursday, "extremely well-suited" for the job, but he admonished her to provide more transparency to the committee -- something that he did not get from Lighthizer.

Wyden said he agrees with the approach of the Biden administration to suspend certain tariffs in an aircraft subsidy dispute with Britain and the European Union to try to negotiate settlement and work through disputed digital services taxes.

Tai will discuss the issues in a phone call next week with UK trade minister Liz Truss.

But Wyden warned that if international negotiations allow Britain's digital taxes to stand and discriminate against U.S. technology platforms, "They're going to have problems getting a free trade agreement with me."

Senate's new finance cop, Oregon's Wyden, holds keys to Biden trade agenda

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