WASHINGTON JTB — WASHINGTON -- House Majority Leader Richard A. Gephardt, D-Mo., a presidential hopeful whose last White House bid was closely identified with a get-tough trade policy, warily jumped on the free-trade bandwagon yesterday, announcing that he would conditionally support the Bush administration's request for "fast-track" authority to negotiate a free-trade agreement with Mexico.
"Rather than fearing to negotiate, we should recognize that the right kind of free-trade treaty could create more than a quarter-million new American jobs, reduce our trade deficit by $8 or $9 billion and help stem the flood of illegal workers streaming into the United States from Mexico," he said.
Fast-track authority gives U.S. trade representatives the power to negotiate treaties that Congress must accept or reject, without revisions, within 60 days. President Bush had said that the United States would not proceed to negotiate an end to tariff barriers with Mexico without such authority.
The chairmen of the House and Senate committees with jurisdiction over trade issues have endorsed fast-track authority, and congressional approval has, in recent days, begun to seem inevitable.
Nevertheless, Mr. Gephardt is considered a key figure, one whose political prominence as a free-trade skeptic, combined with his institutional standing as majority leader, will influence the Senate votes.
The announcement did not come as a shock to White House officials, who courted Mr. Gephardt's support and assuaged his concerns. In particular, Mr. Gephardt cited administration pledges to demand strict environmental standards, ensure that Mexico does not become a platform for other countries' exports to the United States and retrain U.S. workers whose jobs are lost through any economic relocation.
"Because this Republican administration, like its predecessors, has been willing to pursue trade policies that cost American jobs, I approached the proposed grant of 'fast- track' authorization for future trade agreements with a great deal of skepticism," he said. "I can say today that on many of the issues they have moved a good distance."
One labor official described organized labor as "disappointed" by Mr. Gephardt's decision. Labor has opposed fast-track authority, fearing it would result in an agreement that would encourage wholesale export of high-wage U.S. jobs to Mexico, where manufacturing costs are lower because of cheaper wages and weaker environmental standards.
But Mr. Gephardt said that the House would have the ability to change a treaty, even under fast-track, by amending the legislation used to implement the pact. That procedure was employed in 1988, when the United States negotiated a similar treaty with Canada.
"If the administration sends to this Congress a trade treaty that trades away American jobs or tolerates pollution of the environment or abuses workers," he warned, "we can and we will amend it or reject it."