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The top U.S. official on international trade came to Wine Country on Wednesday to tout President Barack Obama’s trade agenda, including a renewed push in Congress to give the White House authority for “fast-track” trade agreements.

However, U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman is getting mixed reviews from local congressional representatives regarding fast-track approval.

Rep. Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, staunchly opposes it. And though he is still awaiting details on the latest proposal, Rep. Mike Thompson, D-St. Helena, acknowledged opposing the administration’s last attempt to win such authority.

Froman nonetheless remained upbeat Wednesday in an interview about the opportunities of a possible trade deal in the Pacific, as well as the dangers if other countries decide to forge their own such agreements without the U.S. at the table.

“Do we want to shape globalization or just be shaped by it?” he asked during a visit Wednesday morning at the Santa Rosa plant of natural foods maker Amy’s Kitchen. Coincidentally, it was the vegetarian manufacturer’s first day of packaging its Thai Red Curry for sale in Germany, part of a new deal with the Kaisers supermarket chain.

The negotiations for a proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement could be wrapped up in a number of months, Froman said. The effort involves 12 countries, including the U.S. and Japan, but notably not China.

Such a trade deal could provide real benefits for some North Bay companies, especially if it lowers tariffs on consumer goods, said Sonoma State University economist Robert Eyler.

“The wine industry should have some good possibilities in terms of growth,” he said, as well as food makers like Amy’s Kitchen.

However, Eyler said, other sectors might not see any benefit and some companies might eventually see a drop in business.

Dick Herman, president of 101 MFG, a Petaluma-based alliance of manufacturing executives, similarly suggested that handicapping the winners and losers at this point is near impossible.

“The question mark is: What is in the agreement?” asked Herman. “Is it really going to level the playing field or is it going to benefit some more than others?”

Froman spent the morning touring the Northpoint Parkway plant of the Petaluma-based Amy’s Kitchen. He later held a roundtable discussion with Thompson in Napa that included a group of North Bay business, environmental and labor leaders.

At Amy’s, he emphasized the benefits that California already sees from international trade. Moreover, he maintained that the president is committed “to do trade policy right.”

The Golden State last year exported a record $174 billion in goods last year, including $25 billion from the Bay Area, he said. Those exports supported about a million jobs statewide. In Sonoma County, companies shipped $1 billion worth of products overseas in 2013, according to the most recent estimates by the U.S. Department of Commerce.

Amy’s Kitchen expects this year to export about $15 million in product to 25 countries, said Paul Schiefer, who oversees the company’s international trade. That amounts to about 5 percent of overall sales, but international sales are growing at about 40 percent a year, the fastest part of the business.

In the container ship era, Amy’s can send its frozen and canned products from Santa Rosa to Australia — a relatively low-tariff country — for “pretty much the same price” as trucking them to New York, Schiefer said.

But some Asian countries can charge a tariff of more than 20 percent, making the food too expensive for many families. While Amy’s is awaiting the details on the Pacific trade agreement, Schiefer said, lowering tariffs would allow its products “to be accessible to the middle class” in those countries.

That is no small matter, Froman said, because the middle class in Asia is to predicted to grow from 500 million to 3 billion over the next 15 years.

And while China isn’t part of the current Pacific negotiations, it is trying to make its own preferential trade agreement with other Asian countries, specifically without U.S. involvement. As such, the administration has warned Congress of the danger in failing to reach a Pacific deal.

Froman suggested the passage of trade agreements is routinely hard work and occurs largely through the support of congressional Republicans, in concert with a “critical” number of Democrats.

For example, the last time Congress approved fast-track authority for trade deals, in 2002, only 25 House Democrats voted “yes.”

Under such approval, known as trade promotion authority, Congress provides guidance to the White House on what should be in the trade deal, but then can’t amend the final proposal and instead can only vote “yes” or “no” on the entire agreement.

Huffman, who was in Fort Bragg on Wednesday and didn’t take part in Froman’s visit, said he doesn’t want to repeat the mistakes of the past, including what he called the failure of the 1992 North American Free Trade Agreement to deliver as promised.

“I am opposed to fast-track authority because I think our history with these trade agreements teaches us that we need more transparency and more oversight rather than less,” he said.

He added that he believes the House vote on the fast-track issue will be close.

Thompson called the Napa gathering productive and said Froman promised to send a follow-up letter for questions he couldn’t answer Wednesday.

Asked for his position, Thompson said, “I want to grow exports” because it means more jobs. However, he said, any trade agreement shouldn’t be “at the expense of workers here” nor “a race to the bottom” in terms of overlooking worker health and safety or environmental concerns in other countries.

Thompson explained that when legislation for fast-track authority came forward last year, “my concerns weren’t addressed, so I didn’t support it.” The proposal never went to a vote.

This year’s fast-track law has yet to be drafted, he said, so he can’t say whether or not he’ll support it. Similarly, he said, though he’s a member of a House committee that regularly advises Froman on the Pacific trade negotiations, he still needs to see the final agreement before taking a position on it.

You can reach Staff Writer Robert Digitale at 521-5285 or robert.digitale@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @rdigit

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