- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 30, 2005

President Bush yesterday asked Congress to extend for two years trade promotion authority, the power that has allowed him to engage two dozen nations in free-trade talks and advance a new round of negotiations at the World Trade Organization.

“We must continue to pursue bilateral and regional agreements to open new markets, and we must complete negotiations in the World Trade Organization to reduce global barriers to trade,” the president said in letters to House and Senate leaders.

The legislation allows the president to negotiate and submit trade pacts to Congress for a yes-or-no vote without amendment. The authority is considered critical to U.S. leadership in international trade matters.

Congress debated for 18 months before it granted the president trade promotion authority — by a single vote in the House — in August 2002.

The authority expires July 1 unless the president wins an extension.

If one chamber of Congress votes to cancel the extension, the authority would be revoked. That is considered unlikely because Republicans control the House and Senate.

Since 1934, Congress has delegated some of its responsibility for trade negotiations to the White House, though the authority lapsed from 1994 until 2002.

Mr. Bush has used the power to open a new round of talks with the WTO’s 148 members, move slowly forward with a hemispherewide trade zone and strike or start smaller deals with two dozen nations.

“Working with the Congress, my administration has completed trade agreements with 12 nations on five continents that will open a combined market of 124 million consumers for America’s farmers, manufacturers and service providers,” Mr. Bush said.

Congress has approved pacts with Jordan, Australia, Singapore, Morocco, Bahrain and Chile since Mr. Bush took office.

But most Democrats and some Republicans have broken sharply with the administration over a deal with six nations in Central America and the Caribbean.

Though finalized in August, the pact has not been sent to Congress for a vote because approval is far from certain. Opposition has coalesced around provisions on labor, environment, agriculture and manufacturing.

Critics also contend that the president’s strategy has done little to address the U.S. trade deficit.

The current account deficit, the broadest measure of international trade, hit a record $665.9 billion last year.

“We haven’t gotten any large trade agreements that would open major export markets for U.S. products. We have agreements with minor economies,” said William Hawkins, senior fellow at the U.S. Business & Industry Council, a trade group for manufacturers that has been critical of the administration’s trade policy.

When Mr. Bush took office, the United States was a WTO member and had free-trade agreements with three nations.

Trade promotion authority, also known as fast-track, had expired in 1994 and President Clinton did not win renewal.

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