- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 24, 2001

President Bush seized a golden opportunity at the weekend's summit in Quebec to burnish his credentials as a free-trade advocate on the world stage, but he still must navigate through the treacherous domestic politics of trade.

"We don't do stuff like this during an election year very often," Sen. Charles E. Grassley, the Iowa Republican who heads the Finance Committee, said over the weekend.

Mr. Grassley hopes to get the ball rolling in his committee by early July at the latest.

"Fast-track" negotiating authority, as it is commonly known, allows the president to submit trade deals to Congress for an up-or-down vote without amendments. Mr. Bush needs it because international trade pacts are not possible if Congress has the chance to alter delicate compromises with other countries.

Leaders from 34 Western Hemisphere nations all but Cuba's Fidel Castro agreed in Quebec to hammer out a Free Trade Area of the Americas by Jan. 1, 2005.

Fast-track, which the Bush administration is calling "trade-promotion authority," has been a political hot potato since it expired in 1993. Democrats argue that the president should be allowed to include labor and environmental rules in trade deals, a demand Republicans generally oppose.

But Mr. Bush needs Democrats to pass fast-track because many Republicans, worried that trade deals compromise American sovereignty, are certain to oppose it, a fact Democrats like to stress.

"The key is the substance," said Rep. Sander M. Levin of Michigan, the top Democrat for trade in the House. "It's not timing."

So far, Mr. Bush's credibility in the trade debate stems from his public statements that make no apologies for being a free trader, and his stated goal repeated to foreign leaders in Quebec of passing fast-track by the end of the year.

The contrast with former President Bill Clinton is especially striking.

During a tumultuous 1999 meeting of the World Trade Organization in Seattle, Mr. Clinton expressed sympathy for anti-globalization demonstrators even as he pushed a free-trade agenda. In contrast, Mr. Bush gave no quarter while in Quebec.

"There are some people in my country that want to shut down free trade, and they're welcome to express their opinions," Mr. Bush said. "But it's not going to change my opinion about the benefits of free trade."

The president's stance cheered congressional free traders.

"Clinton was always trying to split the difference and please everyone," one Senate aide said. "Bush is really sticking his neck out."

Still, the administration has not invested the full force of the president's political capital into fast-track. U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick has been working with members of Congress, but the White House remains focused on the budget and tax cuts, congressional sources said.

Democrats so far are expressing a willingness to strike a deal with the Bush administration, a point underscored yesterday by Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, South Dakota Democrat.

"Fast-track trade authority is a real possibility, so long as it recognizes the important other elements that we have to take into account," he said. "I have always expressed a willingness to provide the president, any president, with fast-track, and I'm hopeful we can do it again."

Mr. Levin said he was encouraged by Mr. Bush's statements in Quebec that freer trade should not undermine labor standards and environmental protection, but added that he wants to see the details.

"The real test will be action," he said.

Republican free-trade advocates, already wary of compromise on labor and environmental issues, are keenly aware that Democrats will be tempted to score political points against Mr. Bush by refusing to compromise and effectively scuttling his trade agenda, congressional sources said.

"If their priority is to hurt the president, there is nothing we can do about it," one Republican aide said.

If fast-track does go forward, it promises to be one of the major legislative battles of the Bush presidency. Organized labor is likely to oppose the bill even if Republican and Democratic leaders strike a deal in committee.

That in turn will trigger a protracted battle for undecided Democrats, whose core union constituency will urge them to oppose fast-track.

"We are ready for a fight," said Thea Lee, assistant director of public policy at the AFL-CIO labor federation.

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