- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 8, 2002

Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle yesterday threatened to abandon legislation that would give the White House the power to strike new trade agreements, a major foreign-policy priority of President Bush.
The South Dakota Democrat said that, without progress in resolving partisan differences over the bill, he would blame Republicans for the demise of "fast-track" negotiating authority, which allows the president to submit trade pacts to Congress for an up-or-down vote without amendments.
"Next week, if we're not further along, I will announce that the [Republican] right wing has killed the bill," Mr. Daschle said.
Republicans countered that Democrats were trying to load up trade legislation with expensive and extraneous measures, including a provision that would spend about $400 million to pay for one year the health care and pensions of 125,000 retired steelworkers whose companies have gone bankrupt.
"This is just the tip of the iceberg," said Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott, Mississippi Republican. "The costs would be astronomical."
Mr. Lott added that Mr. Bush "has already acted in this area" by slapping tariffs of up to 30 percent on imported steel in an effort to help embattled U.S. companies, many of which are in bankruptcy.
The dispute marks a serious setback for a measure most observers expected would win bipartisan support, and a legislative conundrum for the Bush administration. The Senate has traditionally lent solid support to free-trade initiatives.
Mr. Bush and U.S. Trade Representative Robert B. Zoellick need passage of the bill, also known as trade-promotion authority, to complete a planned free-trade zone stretching from Alaska to Argentina. Fast-track would also ease the way for bilateral pacts with a host of other countries, including Chile, Singapore and Morocco.
The bill is also supposed to include renewal of trade preferences for countries in the Andean region of South America, such as Colombia, Bolivia and Peru, intended to discourage narcotics production by promoting exports to the United States. These nations have lobbied heavily for the bill and face a May 16 deadline, after which they will have to begin paying American tariffs, a potentially devastating blow to their industries.
The bill has stalled in the Senate over renewal of a program aiding workers who lose their jobs as a result of trade agreements, which Democrats have made a condition of passing fast-track. The top Republican and Democrat on the Finance Committee, which has jurisdiction over the bill, were close to an agreement on renewing so-called trade-adjustment assistance (TAA) last week.
Sens. Max Baucus, Montana Democrat, and Charles E. Grassley, Iowa Republican, were nearing a deal on using tax credits to pay for the health insurance of laid-off workers, Senate aides said.
The program would have cost about $12.4 billion over 10 years, a staffer said.
But Mr. Daschle brought a version of the TAA bill to the Senate floor that had not been cleared with Republicans. It included "wage insurance" that would supplement the income of laid-off workers even after they found new jobs.
He also bowed to pressure from Democratic Sens. John D. Rockefeller IV of West Virginia and Barbara A. Mikulski of Maryland to fund assistance to retired steelworkers, a proposal Mr. Baucus had resisted.
But Mr. Daschle's bill quickly hit a wall as leading Republican free-traders objected to his additions. Sen. Phil Gramm, Texas Republican, vowed to filibuster the bill over the steelworker assistance and wage-insurance provisions, a threat he repeated yesterday.
"These two issues are nonstarters for me," Mr. Gramm said. "They represent a sort of piling on" to the trade bill.


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