WASHINGTON -- President Bush came closer to his dream of a gigantic North American free-trade zone yesterday when two key congressional committees approved legislation to minimize Capitol Hill's role in impending trade negotiations.
Both the Senate Finance Committee and the House Ways and Means Committee endorsed bills granting two-year extensions in the president's "fast-track" authority to conclude trade agreements. Under fast-track procedures, Congress has 60 days to accept or reject a completed trade treaty, without any changes.
The votes suggest likely approval by the full House and Senate before the end of the month.
The action yesterday was expected, coming as it did on the heels of last week's endorsement by House Majority Leader Richard A. Gephardt, D-Mo., a presidential hopeful who has been closely identified with a get-tough, protectionist trade philosophy.
Just as the committee action represented a second victory for the White House, which has said it would not be able to negotiate a treaty without fast-track authority, it represented another, perhaps decisive, setback for organized labor.
Mr. Gephardt's stance was interpreted as something of a break with his allies in the labor ranks, who have opposed the prospect of a free-trade pact with Mexico modeled on one ratified with Canada.
Labor officials contend that such an agreement will encourage U.S. corporations to export jobs to Mexico's Third World economy, where lower pay and laxer labor standards keep manufacturing costs at bargain-basement levels.
Mr. Bush attempted to answer those concerns with promises to win Mexican observance of stricter environmental and occupational safety regulations. Although labor wasn't assuaged, Mr. Gephardt was, arguing that the House could always reject or amend legislation implementing the treaty if the agreement fell short of expectations.
Unless Congress rejects fast-track authority by June 1, it will be automatically extended. The lopsided margins of the votes yesterday -- 15-3 in the Senate Finance Committee and 27-9 in the House Ways and Means Committee -- suggested to many observers that the authority would be approved.
Mr. Bush also needs the fast-track authority to continue negotiations with 107 countries under the "Uruguay Round" of international trade talks, which is trying to set the first international rules for trade in the service industries. U.S. Trade Representative Carla A. Hills has said that other negotiators will not sit down in the Uruguay Round if the agreement can be amended by Congress.
Advocates of fast-track authority are quick to insist that it would not grant the administration a free hand to negotiate. "If the administration is wise, [it] will pay the closest possible attention to the concerns of members of Congress, not only because the administration has undertaken certain representations to them, but because the ultimate agreement has to be adopted by implementing legislation in both the House and the Senate," said House Speaker Thomas S. Foley, D-Wash.
Nevertheless, fast-track opponents pledge one more, last-ditch effort to defeat fast-track on the House floor, where it is expected to come to a vote next week. Representative Byron L. Dorgan, D-N.D., said 170 of the House's 435 members are committed to opposing fast-track, and "80 to 90" more are undecided.