WASHINGTON -- U.S. President George W. Bush is on the verge of winning ''fast-track'' authority to negotiate new trade agreements, but at the expense of human rights and environmental protections, say die-hard critics.
Senate leaders said Monday they will try to push through the fast-track bill, approved by a mostly partisan House of Representatives in a 215-212 pre-dawn vote on Saturday, before the end of the week when the Senate recesses for August.
Although those plans could still be blocked by opponents, final passage, if not this week, is virtually certain when Congress returns in September.
Former president Bill Clinton failed for five years to get fast-track approval.
Although led by Democrats, who voted by an overwhelming margin against fast-track in the House, the Senate is considered much more trade-friendly than the House. The bill enjoys the support of Majority Leader Tom Daschle, as well as Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, who negotiated the final bill.
Fast-track authority, renamed ''trade promotion authority'', or TPA, by the Bush administration, gives it the power to negotiate new agreements with U.S. trade partners without having to worry that they will be amended or picked apart by Congress.
Under fast-track rules, lawmakers can only vote up or down on an entire trade package as negotiated by the administration.
A number of U.S. trade partners have declined to negotiate the details of pending trade accords unless Bush had fast-track authority in hand. Chile and Singapore are expected to sign bilateral agreements soon, while Morocco and Central American countries are also in line.
Fast-track authority ''will open markets, expand opportunity, and create jobs for American workers and farmers'', Bush said after the vote.
The last major trade agreements negotiated under fast-track authority were the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which was narrowly approved by Congress in 1993, and the 1994 Uruguay Round of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), which established the World Trade Organization (WTO).
Both agreements have proven unpopular with a number of key Democratic constituencies, especially labor unions and environmental groups. As a result, House Democrats have insisted since 1995 that any fast-track authority include guarantees that new trade accords feature tough sanctions on trading partners that violate core labor rights standards or environmental protections.
Republicans, on the other hand, have generally opposed environmental and workers' rights provisions in trade agreements, with the exception of lawmakers from districts with major textile and steel production, which are threatened by lower tariffs.
After toying briefly with the idea of trying to reconcile the two sides - something that Clinton tried but could never accomplish - Bush's Trade Representative, Robert Zoellick, decided late last year to try to ram through a Republican bill without significant Democratic support.
Taking advantage of the ''rally-round-the-flag'' sentiment that swept he country after the Sep. 11 attacks on New York and the Pentagon, the House Republican leadership strong-armed protectionist lawmakers in their ranks to vote the president's way. The bill passed in a 215-214 vote last Dec. 6 but left Democrats, all but 21 of who voted against the bill, angry and embittered.
Getting a fast-track bill through the Senate proved much easier, although Senate Democrats added a number of controversial items, notably a multi-billion-dollar aid package for laid-off workers.
The Senate bill also included a provision permitting the Senate to amend trade accords that altered U.S. anti-dumping laws. That sparked howls of protest from major U.S. trading partners, who noted that Zoellick had committed the U.S. to ending its anti-dumping laws at a WTO ministerial meeting last November, as the price for launching a new round of global trade negotiations.
When the Senate version passed 66-30 on May 23, negotiators from the two houses and Zoellick then had to fashion a compromise bill that both houses could pass. Pro-fast-track forces wanted to get a final bill passed well before the November Congressional elections, which formally begin in September.
After a series of procedural impasses and amid growing concern over the plunging U.S. stock market, the two sides unexpectedly reached a compromise at midnight last Thursday.
Bush set off for Capitol Hill to rally individual Republicans Friday afternoon so that a vote on the 300-page final document could take place before the House adjourned later that night.
Debate on the bill began at 2 a.m. Saturday, with Democrats complaining bitterly about the length of the document and the hour. Only 25 of 208 Democrats, all from big exporting districts, voted for the bill.
The compromise retained the worker-benefits package - worth about 1.2 billion dollars a year - approved in the Senate version but dropped the controversial anti-dumping measure. It also said the administration must include as negotiating objectives adherence to international labor and environmental standards, but makes no mention of sanctions in case of non-compliance.
The bill includes the extension of the Andean Trade Preference Act (ATPA), which provides lower duties for exports from Ecuador, Bolivia, Peru, and Colombia, and of the General System of Preferences (GSP), which gives preferences to goods from poor nations, through 2006.
While the pending bilateral accords, like the one with Chile, are expected to be concluded quickly, the administration's greater interest is in negotiations for the Free Trade Agreement for the Americas (FTAA), which is supposed to be concluded by 2005, and the Doha WTO round.
Democrats and others warned that the administration's partisan tactics could still haunt it both in the upcoming elections, where some Republicans who voted for the bill are in vulnerable districts, and when it submits a new trade accord for Congressional approval, especially if the Democrats gain control of the House next year.
''The politics on trade still change sharply if the House goes Democratic,'' noted Dan Seligman, a trade specialist with the environmental group, the Sierra Club.
John Sweeney, head of the largest U.S. union confederation, AFL-CIO, noted that fast track ''will cost millions of family-supporting jobs at a time when America's workers are already struggling in the wake of corporate wrongdoing and greed''.
''Working people will hold (those who voted for fast track) accountable for their decision in November,'' he added.
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