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— President Barack Obama called on Congress Tuesday to pass legislation giving him fast-track authority to negotiate sweeping trade deals with Asian and European economies — a move likely to set up a major fight with U.S. automakers.

Obama wants congressional approval to permit the U.S. and 11 other Asian economies, including Japan, to reach agreement on the Trans-Pacific Partnership. U.S. automakers, the United Auto Workers and many Democrats want provisions to prevent currency manipulation as part of the deal.

In his State of the Union address, Obama sought to sell the deal by explaining it as a counterbalance to China, which seeks to “put our workers and businesses at a disadvantage.”

“Why would we let that happen? We should write those rules.We should level the playing field. That’s why I’m asking both parties to give me trade promotion authority to protect American workers, with strong new trade deals from Asia to Europe that aren’t just free, but fair.”

Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, in the GOP response, suggested trade was a place where the White House and the Republican-controlled Congress could agree. “Let’s tear down trade barriers in places like Europe and the Pacific,” she said.

U.S., Japan, Mexico, Canada and eight other nations have been negotiating a Trans-Pacific Partnership that would create a free trade zone comprising 40 percent of the world's economy. Australia, Brunei, Chile, New Zealand, Malaysia, Peru, Singapore and Vietnam are part of the talks.

Access to the Japanese market by U.S. vehicles and agriculture products remains the key stumbling block.

The proposed trade pact is facing strong opposition from U.S. automakers and the UAW, which are worried a deal will be reached that doesn't do enough to open the Japanese auto sector to American products. Japan has historically imported very few foreign automobiles, but the number has been rising significantly in recent years.

American automakers fear if Japan intervenes to weaken its currency, its automakers eventually will be able to dramatically undercut them once U.S. tariffs are phased out. They also worry that China could seek to join the trade pact down the road under the same favorable terms. Froman has repeatedly declined to raise the issue in talks, saying it is best left to other international forums.

Rep. Dan Kildee, D-Flint, said he opposes a deal to allow a fast-track vote on the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, because it “could mean the loss of thousands of manufacturing and automotive jobs. My hometown of Flint, Michigan, knows all too well the damaging effect that these trade deals have on our economy. One only has to look back to the last trade deal to see that these bad deals don’t help the American worker – instead they do the opposite, hurting our country’s competitiveness and contributing to a race to the bottom when it comes to wages and exports.”

Kildee noted that Flint once had over 79,000 workers in the manufacturing and automotive industry. Today, he said, there are fewer than 10,000.

Michigan lawmakers were mixed in their reviews of the president’s speech.

Rep. Candice Miller, R-Harrison Township, said Obama “correctly identified a problem facing our nation in growing income inequality, but his prescription for dealing with it is the wrong solution... Instead of the President’s idea of raising taxes on some and making the tax code even more complex, which will continue to benefit those who can afford the best lobbyists, lawyers and accountants, we should instead focus on simplifying the tax code by eliminating special breaks for a few so that we can lower rates for everyone who pays taxes.”

Rep. Debbie Dingell, a freshman Democrat from Dearborn, praised the speech saying she “thought it was the best one President Obama gave. He talked about what unites us and not what divides us and focused on how we need to help the middle class.” She said Michigan “is one of the states that really feels it most -- wages have stayed stagnant ... and many people don’t feel better yet.”

Another first-term Democrat, Brenda Lawrence of Southfield, said she “enthusiastically” supports Obama’s plan to “secure additional revenue from our nation’s wealthiest Americans while rewarding working families with a well-deserved tax cut.”

Not surprisingly, her opinion wasn’t shared by Rep. Bill Huizenga, R-Zeeland. “Instead of raising taxes on hardworking Michiganders,” he said, “President Obama should focus on working with Republican majorities in the House and Senate to reform our broken tax code, foster an environment where good-paying private sector jobs can be created, and address concerns over the nation’s growing debt and the entitlement programs which drive it.”

First-term Republican Rep. Dave Trott of Milford said “Obama’s promises sound good, but his agenda is based on more spending, more government, and more job-killing tax increases. His plans are the same old, outdated, top-down approach that has not solved America’s challenges. Instead, we need a new approach that gets Washington out of the way so that we can create a healthier economy and provide more opportunities for hard-working families in Southeast Michigan.

“The American people,” Trott said, “are hungry for solutions. They expect both parties to find common ground and craft a bipartisan agenda for our nation. I am hopeful that in the coming year the President and Congress can move forward together with pro-growth policies that build a stronger nation and a brighter future for all Americans.”

dshepardson@detroitnews.com

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