House works late debating trade bill

Disputed legislation would give Bush free hand in negotiating agreements

July 27, 2002|By Julie Hirschfeld Davis | Julie Hirschfeld Davis,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - The House worked into the night yesterday to get a vote on a measure to give President Bush broad new authority to negotiate international trade deals that Congress could approve or reject but not change.

The action would hand Bush a triumph on one of his top domestic priorities at a time when the administration and congressional Republicans are determined to show they are working hard to shore up confidence in the economy and in corporate America.

Bush made a rare trip to Capitol Hill yesterday afternoon to urge House Republicans to stay in town for the late-night vote, fearing he could not spare one vote on the measure. The House passed an earlier version in December by a margin of just one vote.

Despite the president's appearance, final House passage of the trade bill remained in doubt late last night as last-minute objections among Republicans delayed its consideration.

"We're going to get a free trade agreement, which is very important for jobs and workers, very important for our farmers and ranchers, and it's very important for our economy," Bush said as he left a closed-door meeting of Republican lawmakers.

At the session, Bush urged those who supported the trade measure in December to do so again. And he asked lawmakers not to leave for their August recess without taking a step that might restore some much-needed faith in the economy.

Trade votes are always among the most difficult for lawmakers to cast - especially in election years - because of pressure from labor interests in their states and districts to protect U.S. industries and jobs.

The vote was to be one of the House's last items before lawmakers depart this weekend for a monthlong recess to face their constituents, who are increasingly concerned about corporate scandals and the shaky stock market.

"It certainly gives the president, and it gives us, something else to talk about during the August recess," Rep. Jim McCrery, a Louisiana Republican, said.

Passage of the measure would mark a key victory for the powerful business lobby, which has seen its influence flag in the past several weeks as lawmakers scrambled to endorse the tough accounting overhaul legislation that cleared Congress on Thursday.

"The business community is going to be lifted spiritually," McCrery said. "They're going to feel better about what's happening in government."

On the heels of approving the accounting measure, lawmakers were under pressure from corporate lobbyists to pass some pro-business legislation, many said privately. As part of that effort, the House was also attempting last night to pass a compromise on a bankruptcy overhaul measure that has been a top priority for the banking industry for years.

Business interests said they wanted to see Congress bring more certainty to the market.

"When you flirt with protectionism, bad things happen, and when you embrace free trade, markets respond positively," said Bill Lane, the Washington director of Caterpillar Inc.

Bush has long argued that he needs the trade measure - formerly known as "fast track" but dubbed "trade promotion authority" by his administration - to open worldwide markets to American goods, creating business opportunities and jobs. The authority the legislation grants had been available to every president since Gerald R. Ford until it lapsed in 1994 and Bill Clinton failed in his efforts to renew it.

The measure would empower the president to negotiate trade deals that can be submitted to Congress for a yes-or-no vote without changes. It is intended to ensure that lawmakers do not pick apart or stall trade deals based on parochial concerns.

A bipartisan agreement between the House and Senate paved the way for passage of the legislation, which the Senate must also approve before it can be signed into law by Bush.

As part of the deal, Democrats dropped demands that the measure afford Congress a chance to halt a trade agreement if it changed laws protecting U.S. products. They did so in exchange for a more generous package of health care and other benefits for workers who lose their jobs as a result of liberalized trade.

The compromise left some lawmakers in both parties deeply dissatisfied. Many Democrats complain that the measure would let Bush forge trade accords that effectively ship American jobs overseas and reward countries with low labor standards with U.S. capital.

"It's a bad deal for American workers and businesses," Rep. Sander M. Levin, a Michigan Democrat, said before the vote. "Another narrow vote will not be a victory for U.S. trade policy, but instead will mean trouble for each new trade agreement because all of the same issues and debates will be repeated."

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