- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 4, 2007

Bipartisanship is blowing on the Hill

While blustery headlines about the Democratic investigations or stormy presidential-congressional relations mount daily, more favorable winds might be blowing on the critical issue of international trade.

No doubt there are many dangerous currents and compromises ahead on the issue, and numerous places were protectionism might prevail. Still, there is also fresh hope that liberalized trade policies might not be dead this year after all despite numerous predictions to the contrary.

A big reason for this welcome new political weather pattern is a change in the partisan temperature of the two top leaders on the House Ways and Means Committee, Chairman Charlie Rangel of New York and ranking Republican Jim McCrery of Louisiana.

While their cooperative efforts are not widely known except among Capitol Hill insiders, since the beginning of this Congress, the two committee leaders have spoken publicly and privately about increased collaboration and comity on the panel with its broad jurisdiction over issues like taxes, trade and health care. Many thought matching cooperative words with collaborative deeds was a pipe dream. After all, this is the committee where the former chairman in the last Congress infamously summoned the Capitol Police to yank Mr. Rangel and his colleagues out of the Ways and Means library, where the Democrats hunkered down in protest. Nevertheless, while both men may find bridging the partisan and policy divide impossible on many issues, they both deserve credit for trying to find consensus.

Democrats and Republicans will always bicker on the Ways and Means Committee. The stakes are too high and the ideological difference too wide on too many issues. But Messrs. Rangel and McCrery believe the pendulum swung too far toward petulance in the last few years. “The new chairman really didn’t like the tone and wanted to do something to change it,” a House Republican member told me. “I don’t know if it will last, but he’s trying.” Messrs. Rangel and McCrery did work out a bipartisan compromise on the “pay-for” in the House minimum-wage bill, earlier this year, a first test at cooperation that surprised some observers. “That would not have happened in the last Congress,” a veteran tax lobbyist told me.

Finding a framework that spans the divide on trade policy, though, will prove even more challenging. Both men face their own sets of internal political and policy hurdles. For Mr. Rangel, his own leadership may pull the rug out from him. Despite his interest in re-establishing a bipartisan consensus on trade, his negotiating room may be extremely narrow because the Democrats are so dominated by labor and environmental interests. Just last week a union official was quoted in The Washington Post saying, “We have assurances from the Democratic leadership that this isn’t the beginning of a long downward negotiation.”

Mr. McCrery faces his own constraints and challenges. He needs to gently cajole his own colleagues to show flexibility given the new realities of a Democratic majority infused with growing protectionism and union clout. Further complicating matters are differences in opinion about political strategy within the Republican conference. “Some people want to take the approach that we should never compromise with the Democrats on anything,” a House GOP aide told me. “Their view is that any accomplishments just help the majority party. Working something out with the Democrats, particularly if it means moving farther than we had to last year, should be avoided at all costs,” he said.

So both lawmakers walk a fine line trying to find a new bipartisan consensus. The Bush administration has signaled its interest in pursuing approval of Free Trade Agreements (FTA) with Colombia, Panama, Peru and South Korea. Reaching a framework on these agreements might also serve as the template for extending Trade Promotion Authority (TPA), which expires in June. Reauthorizing TPA is a critical step in continuing a free trade agenda. Many had written off the chances of that happening until Mr. Rangel and Mr. McCrery began their talks. The next few weeks will prove critical in assessing the real chances of a breakthrough.

No one knows where this will end up, yet these two lawmakers deserve credit for attempting to thread a delicate needle that could end up costing them with their respective parties. The cord connecting the two political parties on free trade has been fraying over the past decade. Securing a new bipartisan consensus on this issue, while difficult and politically risky, is worth the squalls along the way.

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