- The Washington Times - Friday, December 7, 2001

The House yesterday approved by one vote a bill that would grant President Bush the power to negotiate major new global and regional trade agreements.
Following a 30-minute drama in which Rep. Jim DeMint, South Carolina Republican, switched his vote to support it and four other reluctant Republicans cast their votes in favor, the House signed off on the bill by a 215-214 margin that closely tracked party lines.
"It's a victory for the American people and American workers," said a visibly relieved House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, Illinois Republican.
U.S. Trade Representative Robert B. Zoellick, who has pressed Congress to approve the legislation since he took office this year, said passage was a boost for a planned accord in the World Trade Organization and a free-trade pact with Latin America.
"A win is a win," he said.
Business lobbyists cheered the vote as well.
"America is open for business, and we are looking forward to finding new marketplaces for our world-class manufactured products, agricultural goods and services," said Phil Condit, chairman and chief executive officer of the Boeing Co. and head of the Business Roundtable, an industry group active on trade issues.
But organized labor, a traditional trade foe, said lawmakers who voted for the bill would pay on Election Day.
"A strong majority of the American people oppose [the legislation], and they will hold lawmakers who voted against their interests responsible," said John Sweeney, president of the AFL-CIO labor federation.
The bill, known as "fast-track" negotiating authority, would allow Mr. Bush to negotiate trade deals and bring them back to Congress for an expedited, up-or-down vote. No amendments would be allowed.
The legislation was in place in the early 1970s but expired in 1994. Its renewal in the House has been mired in partisan disagreement over whether trade agreements should promote labor and environmental standards, a major issue for Democrats, and how to promote a strong congressional role in trade policy.
The bill that passed yesterday did not address the issue fully enough for most Democrats, who voted 189-21 against the bill. But 194 Republicans backed the legislation, with 23 opposed. Two independents joined in the opposition.
The Senate, a bastion of free-trade sentiment, is virtually certain to pass the bill, probably beginning next week in committee.
Democratic opponents, who said Republicans excluded them during the drafting of the legislation, sought to portray the vote as another bitter, partisan vote driven by the White House.
"This shatters the tradition of bipartisanship on trade bills," said Rep. Charles B. Rangel, New York Democrat.
But Democrats who worked intensively to pass fast-track complimented Republicans, especially a teary-eyed House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Bill Thomas of California, for their cooperation in authoring the bill.
Rep. John Tanner, Tennessee Democrat, called his negotiations with Mr. Thomas "the most intellectually honest discourse on policy that I've had the privilege to be a part of."
House votes normally take 15 minutes, but this one dragged on for more than 30 as Republican vote-getters, especially House Majority Whip Tom DeLay of Texas, worked to reach a majority. Mr. Bush also made calls to a number of lawmakers, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said.
Fast-track supporters lost ground earlier in the day when a group of centrist Democrats announced they would oppose the trade bill. They wanted the House leadership to first approve cash assistance and health insurance for workers who lost their jobs after the September 11 terrorist attacks.
The announcement forced the Republican leadership to squeeze votes out of Republicans who have opposed recent free-trade legislation.
"We're going to have to do more than twist some arms," Rep. Jim Ramstad, Minnesota Republican, said at the time. "We're going to have to break some bones."
The vote was a cliffhanger in the House, where the leadership almost always knows the outcomes before they come up. Supporters of the bill trailed opponents for most of the time on the House floor and were actually losing when the 15-minute voting period ended.
In the ensuing drama, Democrats clamored for the vote to be closed, Then, Mr. DeMint switched his vote from nay to yea after receiving a written pledge from House leaders on the floor to support textile trade legislation he had been seeking. Four Republicans who do not normally support free-trade bills followed, and the gavel fell.
The total of 215, a majority of those voting but not of the whole House, was enough to secure passage.

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