- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 20, 2001

Supporters and opponents of giving President Bush the power to negotiate new trade agreements squared off yesterday, offering a preview of a legislative battle that is likely to occupy Congress through the fall.

Rep. Philip M. Crane, Illinois Republican and chairman of the House Ways and Means trade subcommittee, last week formally introduced legislation that would allow Mr. Bush to cut trade deals and bring them to Congress for an up-or-down vote with no amendments.

This power, known as "fast-track," has been necessary to ensure that Congress does not dismantle the delicately crafted agreements the United States signs with other countries.

It was vital to the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement and the creation of the World Trade Organization, both of which have helped tear down barriers to international commerce.

At a Capitol Hill rally yesterday, labor unions and grass-roots organizations denounced the bill's focus on trade at the expense of social standards.

"This bill is a giant step backward," said Linda Chavez-Thompson, executive vice president of the AFL-CIO labor federation. "It fails to ensure new trade deals will not undermine the government's ability to protect public health, education and the environment."

A short distance away off Pennsylvania Avenue, a coalition of 350 business groups calling itself USTrade staged its own rally in support of fast-track, which it and the Bush administration are calling "trade-promotion authority."

"Open foreign markets mean more access for U.S. goods, services and investments all of which expand opportunities for U.S. companies to serve customers around the world in the growing global market," said John J. Castellani, president of the Business Roundtable, an association of chief executive officers from major American corporations.

The White House also shifted its campaign for fast-track into higher gear.

Mr. Bush met on Monday with leaders from the agricultural sector, which is heavily dependent on exports.

Today, Mr. Bush and Vice President Richard B. Cheney will attend meetings with the Business Roundtable's CEOs, during which they are expected to coordinate strategy.

Most observers believe fast-track opponents have the upper hand, partly because the legislation already has been defeated, once in 1997 when House Republican leaders canceled a planned House vote in the middle of the night because they could not muster a majority.

The following year, the House, which is the chief battleground for trade legislation, rejected fast-track by a decisive margin, which opponents plan to stress during this year's battle.

"The coalition that defeated fast-track trade legislation twice before is growing," said Debbie Sease, legislative director of the Sierra Club, an environmental group. "With the power of grass-roots organizations united here today, we will beat fast-track for a third, and I hope, last time."

Although organized labor's industrial unions, such as the United Auto Workers and the International Brotherhood of the Teamsters, form the backbone of the coalition opposed to fast-track, they have been joined in recent years by a wide array of environmental groups. This year, Oxfam, a human rights organization, religious leaders and women's groups also threw their support behind labor.

In the face of opponents' grass-roots activities, business groups promised their own ground offensive in 167 congressional districts, beginning during Congress' Fourth of July recess.

"The Roundtable will be deploying its operation around the country," Mr. Castellani said.

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