Senate OKs bill expanding president's trade authority

Legislation also grants new benefits to workers hurt by foreign companies

May 24, 2002|By Karen Hosler | Karen Hosler,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Acting on one of President Bush's top legislative priorities, the Senate voted by a wide margin last night to give him expanded authority to negotiate trade deals, while granting new benefits to workers who lose jobs to foreign competition.

The 66-30 vote sends the bill into what are likely to be contentious negotiations with the House, which has passed a far different version of the measure.

"Today's passage by the Senate of a vital package of trade legislation is a critical step in advancing America's trade agenda and strengthening the U.S. economy," Bush said in a statement issued while he was in Moscow. "The passage of this bill sends an important signal to our trading partners that we are committed to free and open trade."

The so-called "fast-track" trade authority is intended to limit Congress' power to undercut presidential negotiations.

Five previous presidents were granted such power. After the most recent such authority expired in 1994, President Bill Clinton failed to persuade Congress to renew it.

Many of the 24 Democratic votes Bush won in the Senate resulted from the addition of billions of dollars in health care and other benefits for workers, farmers, fisherman and others who lose their jobs because of a lowering of trade barriers.

"It's a landmark bill because it not only modernizes our trade policy but it also is balanced with a quite progressive trade adjustment assistance to Americans who are dislocated on account of trade," said Sen. Max Baucus, the Montana Democrat who is chairman of the Senate Finance Committee.

Some administration officials complained that another provision in the Senate bill is so flawed that they would urge a veto if the bill arrived on Bush's desk with that feature intact. The provision would let Congress alter trade deals that are thought to weaken protections for U.S. industries.

But more than 100 House Democrats issued a letter yesterday, calling for the final bill to include the Senate language that would protect existing trade laws. The president has left open his options on the provision, which drew bipartisan support in the Senate.

The opposition

Opponents of fast-track authority argue that even with the expanded worker benefits and industry protections, the final Senate bill failed to address their core objection: empowering the president to send them trade deals on essentially a take-it-or-leave-it basis.

"One of the most important functions of the Congress is to provide a forum in which matters can be thoroughly and openly discussed, in which alternatives can be presented and either accepted or rejected," said Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes, a Maryland Democrat. "The fast-track authority virtually completely undercuts congressional power."

Another Democrat who opposed the trade bill was Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski of Maryland, who failed in her effort to include a program to provide temporary health care subsidies for retired steelworkers who lose their benefits when their companies go out of business.

"I cannot vote for legislation that does not help retired steelworkers who lose their health care," Mikulski said. "I oppose this trade bill because it seeks trade that is more free than fair."

Administration officials say fast-track authority is needed for the United States to compete with nations that are raising hurdles to U.S. exports. Bush is eager to secure the expanded negotiating power for the new round of global trade talks that began in Qatar last year and for talks intended to establish a free-trade zone in much of the Western Hemisphere.

Aside from spending related to the war on terrorism, the trade bill ranks at the top of the president's domestic agenda, ahead of energy, welfare reform, aid to faith-based charities, pension reforms and other issues.

Price of passage

Bush was able to get a version of the fast-track bill through the Republican-led House last year by one vote. But the Democratic-led Senate, as the price of approval, insisted on what one supporter of the bill, Sen. Don Nickles of Oklahoma, the Republican whip, called "ransom."

Much of that price is to be paid through a companion bill. That bill is intended to provide relief, at cost of $10 billion to $12 billion over the next decade, to workers and companies, as well as farmers, ranchers and fishermen hurt by foreign competition resulting from trade deals.

That measure would give laid-off workers a 75 percent subsidy for health insurance premiums.

Also included in the Senate bill is a pilot program for wage insurance. Workers who are forced to take lower-paying jobs because of foreign competition could receive a wage supplement equal to half the difference between their old and new salaries.

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