WASHINGTON - By a three-vote margin, the House of Representatives voted early yesterday to give President Bush the power to negotiate international trade agreements that Congress can ratify or reject but can't rewrite.
The president later hailed the vote, saying the "fast track" trade promotion authority "will open markets, expand opportunity and create jobs for American workers and farmers."
Senate approval of the measure could come as early as this week. The Senate, which is generally friendlier to trade, passed its version of the measure 66-30 earlier this year, and negotiators from the House and Senate set the stage for yesterday's House vote by reaching a surprise agreement Friday night.
The 215-212 House vote, which came largely along party lines at 3:30 a.m., ends an eight-year tug-of-war between advocates and opponents of freer trade.
Champions of new trade agreements, many of them Republicans, argue that they will stimulate the U.S. economy and strengthen America's ties to other nations.
Other legislators, many of them Democrats, fear that new trade pacts will cost American workers their jobs, harm the environment and encourage the exploitation of workers in less developed foreign countries.
Democrats won one crucial demand in the Friday night House-Senate compromise: The bill passed by the House would nearly triple income assistance and health benefits to American workers who lose their jobs to foreign competition. The government would pay 65 percent of such workers' health insurance costs as refundable tax credits.
"This is a strong bill for workers affected by trade," said Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, a South Dakota Democrat.
Negotiators dropped language that would have allowed Congress to kill terms of trade agreements that altered U.S. trade law protections, such as regulations that prohibit selling foreign products in the United States at cut-rate prices. Bush vigorously opposed giving Congress that selective veto power.
The first region likely to benefit is Latin America. The agreement renews and expands trade preferences for Peru, Colombia, Ecuador and Bolivia. The United States has given the four Andean mountain nations preferential trade status since 1991 as part of an effort to counter the illicit drug trade in Latin America.
Bush also has said that the enhanced powers of Trade Promotion Authority will permit him to move forward with plans to negotiate a hemispheric trade pact that reaches from Canada to Chile by 2005.
Chilean officials hailed the House action yesterday, saying it brings a free trade agreement with the United States within reach after two years of negotiations. Chile is a major exporter of copper and has been promoting sales of fresh fruit, wine and timber.