- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 11, 2006

The Bush administration is pressing Congress to pass at least three trade deals this year, although limited time, November elections and stiff Democratic opposition mean that only one final vote is nearly certain.

House lawmakers are expected to vote on a free-trade agreement with Oman as soon as next week, and separate hearings begin today on free trade with Peru and allowing Vietnam into the World Trade Organization.

“We’re going to get as much as we can get done in July. What we don’t get done in July we’re going to try and get done in September. What we don’t get done in September we’re going to get done in a lame duck [session],” said a U.S. trade official, who asked not to be named.

The Senate approved the U.S.-Oman Free Trade Agreement last month in a 60-34 vote, but opposition may be stiffer in the House. Ways and Means Committee Democrats last month unanimously opposed the deal, saying it leaves the door open to labor abuses.

Oman would join Bahrain, Morocco, Jordan and Israel as the administration works to build a Middle East Free Trade Area, a post-September 11 initiative to more closely tie to region to the global economy and U.S. policies.

The Bush administration is emphasizing national security goals as it lobbies Congress to approve the Oman accord.

Democrats overwhelmingly supported the Bahrain, Morocco and Jordan pacts but say the administration has not responded to their concerns with Oman.

“I would have expected this to be a straightforward agreement, but [the U.S. Trade Representative’s Office] has been so uncooperative,” said a House Democratic aide. “We are now undecided.”

Democrats also are under pressure from organized labor to rebuff the White House on trade.

Republicans hold a 29-seat advantage in the House and can push through the Oman deal.

The rest of the Bush administration’s trade agenda may be on shakier ground on Capitol Hill.

The White House needs Congress to approve a completed free-trade agreement with Peru and to grant Vietnam permanent normal trade relations before the country can join the WTO.

Vietnam appears to have support from both parties; but as the Nov. 7 election nears, lawmakers likely will become more reluctant to vote on trade deals, which can strike a nerve with some domestic manufacturers and blue-collar workers.

“There is a strong sense that we don’t talk about [trade] as much in September and October, especially with elections looming,” said John Murphy, vice president for international affairs at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

The House will be in recess from July 31 until Sept. 5, while the Senate is out from Aug. 7 until Sept. 5.

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