WASHINGTON -- After weeks of arm-twisting, the House yesterday acceded to White House pleas and granted President Bush special authority to knock down trade barriers around the globe and negotiate a landmark free-trade agreement with Mexico.
dTC On a 231-192 vote, the House agreed to minimize Capitol Hill's interference in impending trade negotiations, granting the president "fast-track" negotiating flexibility for two years. Under fast-track rules, Congress is effectively prevented from changing treaty once it has been negotiated and must accept it without amendment or reject it within 60 days of completion.
"The extension of fast-track authority gives us the opportunity to put the bickering behind us and put forward a united front toward achieving world economic growth," said Representative Dan Rostenkowski, D-Ill., chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee.
The Senate, which began to debate the measure last night, was expected to follow the House's lead before adjourning for a Memorial Day recess.
With yesterday's action, President Bush came closer to his dream of a gigantic, North American free-trade zone. Administration officials intend to model a tariff-removing trade treaty with Mexico along the lines of one negotiated with Canada by the Reagan administration.
"I couldn't be more pleased," Mr. Bush said, hailing the vote as "great show of bipartisan cooperation."
A continental free-trade zone would create the largest market i the world, with more than 360 million consumers and a total annual output of $6 trillion. Proponents say that increased exports would drive the economies of Canada, Mexico and the United States.
Opponents -- among them labor officials, environmentalists farmers and consumer advocates -- say that U.S. companies will export jobs to Mexico's Third-World economy, where labor is cheap and environmental and occupational safety standards are lax.
Mr. Bush said the measure was "a very important step for ou country. I think it's a very important step for our neighbors to the south and hopefully for Europe as well."
Mr. Bush needs fast-track authority to continu trade-barrier-busting negotiations with 107 countries under the so-called "Uruguay Round" talks, which are trying to set the first international rules for trade in the service industries. U.S. Trade Representative Carla A. Hills has contended that other negotiators will not sit down in the Uruguay Round if an eventual agreement might be amended by Congress.
The fast-track question was one of the most furiously conteste issues of the year, pitting organized labor against Hispanic groups, business organizations and the governments of the United States and Mexico. President Bush said the issue was one of the most important foreign policy questions to face this Congress.
Indeed, fast-track appears to have occupied more of the president's time in recent months than any issue except the Persian Gulf.
"The president set the tone for this whole effort back i February," agreed Nicholas E. Calio, chief White House lobbyist for the House of Representatives, whose staff participated in daily strategy sessions on the legislation. "He made it clear to the staff and members of Congress how strongly he believes fast-track is important to the economy."
Mr. Bush spoke out on the trade measure publicly more than a dozen times in almost as many different forums.
Business executives, Hispanic leaders and environmentalists have all been entertained at the White House to discuss the issue. The president personally lobbied about 100 congressmen and senators.
"They've trucked so many members down to have breakfast with the president, they must be running out of eggs benedict at the White House," complained Representative Byron L. Dorgan, D-S.D.