- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 8, 2001

The Bush administration yesterday opened the door to compromise with Democrats in an effort to pass legislation that would allow the president to negotiate broad new trade agreements for the first time in nearly a decade.

But U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick, appearing before the House Ways and Means Committee, said he would not give in to Democratic demands that the new administration support a free-trade pact with Jordan that the Clinton administration negotiated but that still must be approved by Congress.

During his first congressional appearance since being confirmed as the top U.S. trade negotiator, Mr. Zoellick repeatedly stressed the need for Congress to approve what Republicans now call "trade promotion authority."

"We cannot afford to stand still or be mired in partisan division while other nations seize the mantle of leadership on trade from the United States," Mr. Zoellick said.

During the hearing, he covered a broad scope of trade issues, ranging from disputes with the European Union over bananas and hormone-treated beef to steel imports, to dried bean exports to Mexico.

Mr. Zoellick rejected suggestions that the United States should ease restrictions on trade with Cuba, saying "any economic opening ends up supporting his dictatorship."

But he made clear that the Bush administration's priority in trade policy, as President Bush told Congress last week, is to move ahead with plans for new trade agreements.

Mr. Bush will travel on April 20 to Quebec, where countries from North and South America will decide whether to push for a Free Trade Area of the Americas.

Trade promotion authority also known as "fast-track" allows the president to negotiate trade agreements and submit them to Congress for an up-or-down vote without amendments.

During almost the entire Clinton administration, Republicans and Democrats haggled over whether fast-track should allow presidents to incorporate labor and environmental standards into trade agreements, dooming efforts to pass it in 1997 and 1998.

But even with Congress and the White House in Republican hands, Mr. Bush still needs Democratic support to win the authority. Many members of his own party oppose new free-trade agreements on the grounds that they infringe on American sovereignty.

Mr. Zoellick gave a nod in the direction of Democrats, saying the administration has "an open mind" on labor and environmental rules. He cited a raft of models for how to promote labor and environmental standards overseas while expanding trade.

Committee Chairman Rep. Bill Thomas, California Republican, said Republicans and Democrats need to avoid partisan battles if fast-track is to pass.

"We need to keep both sides flexible and come up with a little creativity here," Mr. Thomas said. "If you go back to the old positions and lock yourself in at the outset, it's going to be extremely difficult."

Rep. Sander M. Levin, Michigan Democrat, also indicated that a more bipartisan approach might be in the works.

"More and more, there is an understanding that labor and environmental issues are part of the trade equation," he said.

The agreement with Jordan, which covers $286 million in two-way trade, has taken on a political significance out of proportion to its commercial value, observers said.

Because it contains rules on labor and environmental standards, Democrats have challenged Mr. Zoellick to submit it to Congress for approval before Jordan's King Abdullah visits Washington April 10. Mr. Levin and key Senate Democrats have warned that changing the Jordan pact would scuttle chances for cooperation on fast-track.

But the Bush administration objects to parts of the agreement that provide for penalties if Jordan or the United States does not enforce its own labor and environmental laws.

"Sanctions are something that could be very difficult for us," Mr. Zoellick said.

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Manage Newsletters

Copyright © 2019 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

Please read our comment policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide