- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 18, 2004

The United States and Australia yesterday signed a free-trade agreement, the first in a series the Bush administration hopes to send Congress this year for approval.

The administration is working to rapidly expand the country’s free-trade network even as economic uncertainty has made trade a sensitive election-year issue in Congress.

“In both the United States and Australia, we must now turn our attention to winning approval of the agreement from our respective legislatures,” U.S. Trade Representative Robert B. Zoellick said at the signing ceremony.

Both nations would like their legislators to approve the pact this summer so that it takes effect Jan. 1, Mr. Zoellick added.

The administration also has concluded pacts with Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua — the Central American Free Trade Agreement — as well as the Dominican Republic and Morocco. The CAFTA signing is scheduled for next week; the agreement would later be packaged with the Dominican Republic’s for a single congressional vote.

Under trade-promotion authority won by President Bush in August 2002, the House and Senate vote yes or no on trade deals. No amendments are allowed.

Yesterday Mr. Bush’s trade team began negotiations with Colombia, Ecuador and Peru, adding the three South American nations to a list that includes Panama, five southern African nations, Bahrain and soon Thailand.

Collectively, the agreements would make up a relatively small share of total U.S. trade but are strongly backed by many U.S. businesses that see new opportunities to sell their goods and services overseas.

The Australia deal may have the best chance of quick approval.

Politically, the Pacific nation is an ally in Iraq and on other foreign-policy initiatives. Economically, the agreement is especially attractive to manufacturers because more than 99 percent of manufactured goods exported to Australia will become duty-free as soon as the agreement becomes law. Manufactured goods account for 93 percent of U.S. exports to Australia.

“I feel confident that Congress will agree that this accord is a winner for the United States,” said Ted Austell, vice president for international policy at aviation manufacturer Boeing, and co-chairman of a business coalition supporting the pact.

There is not yet a set date for a vote in either house of Congress.

“I think Australia is going to happen this summer. I don’t know the exact timing,” said John Feehery, spokesman for House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, Illinois Republican.

Democratic leaders on trade issues, such as Reps. Charles B. Rangel of New York and Sander M. Levin of Michigan, yesterday admonished the Bush administration for “misguided overall trade policy” but said that the U.S.-Australian agreement “is worthy of congressional support.”

Other groups oppose the trade agreements, often because of specific clauses that open up competition in new areas.

Sen. Russell D. Feingold, Wisconsin Democrat, said the agreement “is not good for Wisconsin’s dairy industry.”

And Iowa’s Democratic governor, Tom Vilsack, this month asked Mr. Zoellick to strike procurement chapters from the Australia pact and other agreements. Mr. Vilsack said the agreement would limit the state’s ability to hire local firms for taxpayer-funded contracts.

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