Clinton offers Democrats concessions on trade bill He's still about 24 votes shy, House leaders say

November 06, 1997|By Carl M. Cannon and David Folkenflik | Carl M. Cannon and David Folkenflik,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Waging an uphill fight to renew his broad authority to negotiate trade deals, President Clinton unveiled concessions yesterday intended to ease the fears of many fellow Democrats that such authority threatens American jobs.

"Changes in the economy do bring job dislocation," Clinton conceded in remarks made in the Oval Office. "Most of them come because of technology. Some of them come because of trade."

To try to soften disruptions caused by global trade, the president pledged to set aside an additional $750 million to retrain workers who lose jobs because of foreign competition. He also outlined steps to bolster communities devastated by the closing of major industrial plants due to foreign competition, an approach already used to help areas affected by military base closings.

"There is no reason why our nation cannot see to it that every American has the tools and conditions to succeed in this new economy," Clinton said.

The legislation in question, known as "fast-track," grants the president the power to negotiate trade agreements without input from Capitol Hill. Congress must still ratify the agreements, but only on an up-or-down vote; no amendments can be added.

House votes tomorrow

On Tuesday, the legislation survived a key procedural vote in the Senate, where passage is virtually assured. The attention now turns to the House, which will vote tomorrow and where Democrats have launched a spirited attack on the measure. House leaders say the president is about two dozen votes shy of the majority he needs.

Republicans heavily support the measure. But many Democrats, along with organized labor and environmentalists, worry that the fast-track measure could hurt U.S. workers by favoring nations where pay is lower, the working conditions are poor and environmental protections are weak.

Fast-track authority, which has been granted to every president since 1974, was used by the Reagan and Bush administrations to forge the historic North American Free Trade Agreement.

The furious fight that preceded NAFTA's approval in 1993 revealed a fault line within Democratic ranks. On the one side were traditional Democrats allied with organized labor, such as House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri. On the other were moderate Democrats, led by Clinton and Vice President Al Gore, who speak passionately of the value of global free trade.

The moderates won that round, but so far NAFTA has not proved to be the boon to either Mexican workers or the U.S. economy that its advocates had predicted. In fact, since it took effect, the United States has opened a trade deficit with Mexico for the first time.

The history of NAFTA has redoubled the skepticism of some liberal Democrats, who complain that NAFTA allows companies to avoid U.S. labor laws and international environmental pacts by moving their operations south of the border.

"We want the enforcement of their labor laws and their environmental laws, whoever 'their' is," said Gephardt, who was not mollified by Clinton's concessions.

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts issued a statement saying: "This fast-track bill is grossly one-sided and unfair. It goes the extra mile to protect intellectual property rights and other rights of business. Yet it puts major roadblocks in front of any efforts to protect the rights of workers."

"If we can protect a song, we ought to be able to protect a child," said Sen. Tom Harkin, an Iowa Democrat.

Clinton insists that global commerce is now a reality and that if the United States gets too prickly about the terms of such trade, America will lose both market share and its leverage to insist on minimum standards of conduct.

"Foreign nations already enjoy open access to our markets," Clinton said Tuesday. "This legislation will give us the authority to increase access to foreign markets, especially in the fastest-growing regions in the world. The world economy is clearly on a fast track. If we don't seize these opportunities, our competitors surely will."

Yesterday, he amplified that theme: "We can rise to the challenges of the future, right the trade rules, continue our remarkable growth, or we can turn our back on the world and fail to compete for new markets, new contracts and new jobs."

Gore contended that fast-track authority gives the president the ability -- as part of a negotiation -- to insist on the very standards that labor interests want.

"Turning our backs on the world will not create a single new job, won't close down a single sweatshop, won't clean up a single toxic-waste site," Gore said.

Protectionist battle cry

During the NAFTA fight, the politics of the issue were not easily cataloged: The most liberal Democratic members of the House allied themselves with some of the most conservative Republicans and embraced a protectionist "America-First" battle cry.

At the same time, in pushing for NAFTA, Clinton enjoyed the support of former presidents ranging from Jimmy Carter, a Democrat, to George Bush, a Republican.

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