- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 1, 2001

President Bush asked Congress Tuesday night for the authority to strike new trade agreements, setting up a contentious fight over the role of the United States as the world's leader in fighting for free trade.

Mr. Bush will depend on Democrats to pass new negotiating authority, since key members of his party, who believe trade agreements infringe on U.S. sovereignty, are sure to oppose it, observers say.

The issue will come to a head early in the administration when Mr. Bush travels to Quebec City on April 20 for a summit of North and South American leaders to decide whether to wrap up negotiations on a Free Trade Area of the Americas by 2003.

In November, U.S. Trade Representative Robert B. Zoellick will attend a meeting of the World Trade Organization in Qatar, where countries will decide whether to start a new round of global trade talks.

Additionally, the United States in the next two months will resume negotiations started by the Clinton administration with Singapore and Chile on free-trade agreements, government officials said.

"Nothing is more damaging to the credibility of the United States in trade negotiations than not renewing the president's trade promotion authority," Sen. Charles E. Grassley, Iowa Republican, said at a hearing Tuesday.

In his speech, Mr. Bush asked Congress for "the strong hand of presidential trade promotion authority," a reference to legislation that traditionally has been known as "fast track." This law, which expired in 1993, allows the president to negotiate trade agreements that Congress can approve or reject but cannot amend.

The procedures were developed in the 1970s in response to worries that Congress would make piecemeal changes to trade agreements and destroy delicate compromises with trading partners.

The Bush administration has carefully avoided the "fast-track" label. Many Americans have come to associate it unfavorably with a trade policy that takes no account of other values, such as human rights, that the public holds dear, said Steven Kull, director of the Program on International Policy Attitudes at the University of Maryland.

"The label 'fast-track' has become the essence of what people object to in trade policy," he said.

Despite shifting majorities in Congress, the political calculus of trade policy has not changed over the past decade. Republicans such as Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Jesse Helms, North Carolina Republican, have opposed the North American Free Trade Agreement, the creation of the World Trade Organization and stronger commercial ties with China.

As a result, even Republican presidents have relied heavily on a core of centrist Democrats to pass trade legislation. Most Democrats, supporting the argument of organized labor that free trade destroys jobs in the United States, have opposed new agreements.

Republicans and Democrats could not agree over the past seven years on how to treat labor and environmental issues in trade agreements, making it impossible to pass fast-track. The Clinton administration and Democrats, at the behest of labor and environmental groups, pushed for the issues, while Republicans opposed them.

The Clinton administration left behind a free-trade agreement with Jordan that it negotiated to include labor and environmental rules. The Bush administration now must decide whether to seek its approval by Congress.

Though it covers a small amount of trade, roughly $287 million, Democrats have turned the Jordanian agreement into a litmus test for the Bush administration's intentions on trade, hinting they will oppose fast-track if Mr. Bush does not follow Mr. Clinton's lead on labor and environmental issues.

"There is no quicker and surer way to poison the well of compromise on trade than to try to scuttle the U.S.-Jordan [agreement]," Sen. Max Baucus, Montana Democrat, said this week.

Democrats have found support from many business groups, who have irked Republicans by arguing that a compromise on labor and environmental issues is the only way to break the stalemate on trade.

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