- The Washington Times - Friday, August 10, 2001

Lobbyists and activists of all stripes are bearing down on dozens of congressional districts this month, vying for the allegiances of members who have not decided whether to support President Bush's request for the authority to negotiate big new trade agreements.
For business groups, like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which is hitting the road in Alabama today, working the districts on trade issues represents a major switch from previous efforts to pass this particular piece of legislation.
Aggressive local campaigning by industry is one of the few things scaring the bill's opponents, who helped defeat it twice in the House, in 1997 and 1998.
"They've learned from our grass-roots tactics, and that's worrying," said Mike Dolan, who heads the California office of Public Citizen's Global Trade Watch, founded by consumer advocate Ralph Nader.
At stake is a bill to give Mr. Bush "fast-track" negotiating powers, something he has called a top priority.
This bill, which the Bush administration is calling "trade promotion authority," would allow the president to negotiate trade agreements and submit them to Congress for an up-or-down vote without amendments.
Mr. Bush has said his main goals are to create a free-trade zone stretching from Alaska to Argentina, and to start a new global round of talks in the World Trade Organization.
The outcome of congressional action in the fall will determine who has won the battle for the districts, but one fact is clear right now: Both sides are trying hard.
Fast-track opponents are angling to repeat their success of August 1997, when they gleefully watched President Clinton while away the hours on Martha's Vineyard. They said Mr. Clinton lost control of his legislative agenda during the congressional recess.
For Public Citizen, the agenda includes rallies in Redondo Beach, Calif., demonstrations in Portland, Ore., and caravans in Tennessee, all targeted at specific members of Congress.
But the Chamber, a stalwart on the Washington lobbying scene, is starting to look a little more like Public Citizen. Today, Chamber officials will board a bus with Alabama's Democratic Gov. Donald Siegelman to tour several manufacturing facilities and tout the benefits of trade.
"Our approach is very grass roots," said Leslie Schweitzer, the Chamber's senior trade adviser in Washington. "We're not fighting the air war here."
The Chamber's interest in local activism is new enough that it has recruited people who have long been interested in international trade, but not trade politics. For example, the governor will visit Excellance Inc., which outfits ambulances, near Huntsville.
"I'm not much of a political animal," said Charlie Epps, the company's president and chief executive officer. "This just came up."
The Chamber's interest in Alabama this week caught the attention of the state chapter of the AFL-CIO, which had planned a big demonstration during the business group's activities.
But some union officials worried about embarrassing Mr. Siegelman, a Democratic ally, one year before he could face a tough re-election fight. As a result, the governor agreed not to explicitly endorse fast track in a speech to the Chamber.
In return, the unions canceled their rally, said Stewart Burkhalter, the Alabama AFL-CIO president. "We're still opposed to fast track, but we're not going to take on the governor," he said.
The Chamber is not the only business group out in the field. The Business Roundtable, a Washing-
ton-based association of corporate chiefs, has hired organizers in 24 states covering 167 congressional districts.
John Manzella, the organizer for upstate New York, said the Roundtable's strategy is an open attempt to copy organized labor's political strategy of keeping workers in contact with elected officials.
"All we're doing is helping businesses express themselves to their members of Congress," he said.

LOAD COMMENTS ()

 

Click to Read More

Click to Hide