- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 1, 2002

Congress is set to grant President Bush negotiating authority that would give him his best opportunity yet to build a legacy as a free-trade leader.

As early as tomorrow, after an 18-month political fight, the Senate is likely send to the White House a bill to give the president "fast-track" trade negotiating authority for the first time in eight years. The bill would allow Mr. Bush to cut trade deals and submit them to Congress for up-or-down votes, without alterations.

But Mr. Bush will have to turn around past practices before he can start building a free-trade reputation, say observers, business lobbyists and foreign officials.

"It would have been a disaster without it, but now that he has [negotiating authority], the game only begins," said Robert Litan, a trade scholar at the Brookings Institution. "In the eyes of the rest of the world, the United States has moved backwards."

The steel tariffs of up to 30 percent that Mr. Bush imposed in March and the farm bill he signed in May ran counter to the administration's rhetoric on free trade. But other initiatives offer the chance to win back credibility with proponents of open international markets.

Global talks, under the auspices of the World Trade Organization, on tariffs, agriculture, services and patent rules are scheduled to wrap up by Jan. 1, 2005. The United States also is negotiating to create a Free Trade Area of the Americas, stretching from Canada to Argentina, by the end of 2004.

U.S. Trade Representative Robert B. Zoellick is in the early phases of what could be free-trade deals with Australia, Morocco, southern Africa and Central America, and active negotiations with Chile and Singapore. But he likely cannot close the deals without "fast track," which the Bush administration has dubbed "trade-promotion authority."

"We need [it] now so we can start bringing back trade agreements to the Congress for an up-or-down vote on the packages," Mr. Zoellick said in a May speech in Washington.

But the Bush administration left the rest of the world wondering whether it was serious about the worldwide talks when, at the behest of politically powerful steel companies and unions, it slapped tariffs on steel only four months after WTO members kicked off their effort in Doha, Qatar.

Then congressional negotiators hammered out a farm bill that boosted subsidies by $71 billion over 10 years. With Republican senatorial candidates facing tough races in the farm belt, Mr. Bush signed the bill and left Mr. Zoellick to defend it to other countries.

U.S. business officials who visited the Geneva-based WTO in June found that many diplomats thought the Bush administration was backtracking from its free-trade stance.

"They were befuddled," said Bill Lane, a lobbyist for Peoria, Ill.-based Caterpillar, a construction-equipment manufacturer.

Scott Miller, a lobbyist for Cincinnati-based Procter & Gamble Co., said he was surprised how closely diplomats in Geneva were following the U.S. battle over trade-negotiating authority and how much they associated the legislation with a strong American presence in the WTO negotiations.

"They were trying to sense from us when the United States would be prepared to lead on trade," Mr. Miller said.

As recently as last week, Latin American countries were castigating the United States over steel and farm subsidies during a summit in Ecuador.

"Latin America continues to be marked by its extreme vulnerability, today sharpened by the persistence of protectionist policies and subsidies in industrialized countries," said Ecuador's President Gustavo Noboa. His sentiment was echoed by Brazilan President Fernando Henrique Cardoso.

But the same day the House passed the trade-negotiating legislation in a 215-212 vote, Mr. Zoellick announced an American plan to reform worldwide agricultural trade.

By proposing to slash domestic subsidies by $100 billion and cut tariffs on farm products from 62 percent to 15 percent, the Bush administration began to regain the initiative. Australia, a major farm producer that criticized the farm bill, seemed relieved.

"In the light of Australia's continuing concerns about the U.S. farm bill, this reform proposal indicates that the United States is prepared to seek a leadership role in these negotiations," said Agriculture Minister Warren Truss.

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