- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 10, 2003

The Bush administration plans to send trade agreements with Chile and Singapore to Congress next week, and lawmakers in both chambers expect to vote on the pacts before their summer recess begins Aug. 4, officials said yesterday.

The two pacts are the first negotiated by the Bush administration under hard-won trade-promotion authority and would be the biggest free-trade deals since Congress passed the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1993.

“It is our objective to complete consideration of both of these bills prior to the August recess,” said Sen. Charles E. Grassley, Iowa Republican and chairman of the Senate Finance Committee.

The Senate Finance and the House Ways and Means committees — the two bodies with jurisdiction over trade — yesterday informally reviewed legislation that would allow the pacts to become law.

In voice votes, both committees approved the draft of rules that would lower trade barriers and set up an array of rules governing the sale of goods and services.

Under trade-promotion authority approved by Congress last year, the Bush administration can negotiate trade agreements and submit them to Congress for a yes-or-no vote.

Lawmakers are not allowed to amend the pacts, but through an informal process can suggest changes to legislation drafted by the president’s trade team.

The changes generally focus on technical details because the trade agreements have been agreed to and signed by leaders from the United States, Chile and Singapore.

The House Judiciary Committee, which has a say in the agreements’ immigration provisions, yesterday proposed altering immigration rules introduced by the Bush administration.

Draft trade legislation would grant work visas to “professionals” from Singapore and Chile under a new category, while lawmakers asked the administration to lump the two countries under an existing visa program.

The existing program limits the number of workers, has relatively high fees and requires regular renewals.

“They made a couple of decisions I think we’re OK with,” said a U.S. trade official, who noted that the proposal had not been thoroughly reviewed.

Support for the pacts in the Senate appears certain — the Finance Committee approved the draft legislation with no questions or criticism.

Debate in the House was more sharply divided. And while lawmakers in both parties said they generally support the two agreements, questions remained on specific provisions, including the visa program.

Democratic support for the pacts was tempered by concerns that the agreements would be used as a model for future agreements.

“It is critical that these agreements we’re considering today not be used as a template for future [free-trade agreements],” said New York Rep. Charles B. Rangel, top Democrat on the Ways and Means Committee.

Concern focused largely on labor rights.

The agreements call for Chile and Singapore to enforce their own labor standards.

While labor laws and enforcement in those countries are considered in line with international standards, other nations negotiating trade pacts with the United States, especially in Central America, have a mixed record.

U.S. Trade Representative Robert B. Zoellick yesterday said future trade deals would follow the structure established by Chile and Singapore.

The administration is working with other nations to improve labor standards, he added.

Still, key Democrats on trade issues suggested they would vote for the pacts. Rep. Sander M. Levin, Michigan Democrat, indicated he would support the free-trade agreements.

Republican support for the trade agreements was less qualified.

Rep. Bill Thomas, California Republican and Ways and Means Committee chairman, called the deals “first class.”

“I expect they will both be approved by the Congress with strong bipartisan support,” said Rep. Philip M. Crane, Illinois Republican and a party leader on trade issues.

Since NAFTA was signed with Mexico and Canada in 1993, the United States has concluded one other free-trade pact, with Jordan.

Singapore is the United States’ 11th-biggest export market, Chile the 33rd biggest, and Jordan is 73rd.

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