Senate panel approves 'fast-track' trade bill Bipartisan vote is termed 'a major step forward'

October 02, 1997|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON -- President Clinton's controversial "fast-track" trade bill cleared a key hurdle in Congress yesterday, bolstering its chances for passage despite opposition by labor, environmentalists and GOP conservatives.

On a voice vote reflecting bipartisan support, the Senate Finance Committee formally approved a bill that essentially parallels the one that Clinton sent Congress, paving the way for floor action in that chamber later this month.

The lopsided vote in committee is expected to provide political cover for more senators to support the bill, which would strengthen Clinton's hand in negotiating trade pacts.

Prospects for the legislation are less certain in the House, where work on it is scheduled to begin next week.

Administration officials immediately hailed the Finance Committee action as a turning point. Charlene Barshefsky, the U.S. trade representative, called it "a major step forward" in the fight for the measure.

Republicans have been pressing Clinton to take a personal hand in rallying support for the bill, contending it could be defeated unless GOP lawmakers can be assured that Democrats will back it as well.

The legislation would provide new authority for the administration to begin trade-liberalization talks with a variety of U.S. trading partners, including talks on including Chile in the North American Free Trade Agreement.

To protect such negotiations once they are completed, however, the measure would require Congress to set a quick up-or-down vote on any new trade accords and not try to reopen bargaining on specific provisions.

Yesterday's committee action came as the White House announced that it will seek new talks with South Korea in an effort to persuade Seoul to eliminate barriers to the sale of U.S.-made automobiles.

Although officials here denied it, the move was seen mainly as an effort to convince Congress that the administration is aggressively enforcing existing trade accords, in hopes of bolstering support for "fast-track."

U.S. presidents have had such fast-track authority since 1974, but Clinton allowed his to lapse four years ago and had not sought to renew it until recently.

Administration officials say the fast-track authority is needed to guarantee to other countries that Congress will not try to renegotiate a trade accord on the House or Senate floor after U.S. officials have agreed to it.

Several U.S. trading partners have refused to begin trade talks ,, with the United States until the fast-track authority has been renewed.

Meanwhile, U.S. competitors -- such as European nations -- have been moving in to fill the void.

Pub Date: 10/02/97

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