- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 27, 2007

House Democrats yesterday proposed tightening labor standards in pending trade deals with Peru, Panama and Colombia for the pacts to be approved by Congress.

The proposal came shortly before the Saturday deadline the Bush administration and Congress face to agree on the deals.

“We are on the brink of restoring bipartisanship to our trade policy,” House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Charles B. Rangel, New York Democrat, told reporters in announcing the proposals. He expects to meet with the administration on the package in coming days.

The trade proposals include requiring countries to adopt and enforce international labor standards, which have been a major bone of contention between Democrats and labor groups on one side and the administration on the other.

That will require changing labor provisions of the Peru and Colombia agreements to include an enforceable commitment to abide by core international labor standards, said Rep. Sander M. Levin, a Michigan Democrat who heads the Ways and Means trade subcommittee.

Those pacts and another agreement with Panama also would have to be changed to ensure intellectual property rights provisions do not prevent poor people in those countries from having access to life-saving drugs, he added.

Without a “reassessment” of U.S. trade policy, “we can’t re-establish bipartisanship,” Mr. Levin said.

Agreements on labor standards between Congress and the administration are crucial to the fate of the trade deals as well as the renewal of President Bush’s trade-negotiating authority, which expires at the end of June. That authority allows the administration to work out trade agreements that Congress must accept or reject without amendment.

The Democratic trade leaders said they also want a trade policy that will require countries to implement and enforce multilateral environmental agreements, take action to address Chinese subsidies and intellectual property violations, and press for immediate action on Chinese and Japanese currency manipulation, and open Korea’s markets for automotive, industrial goods, agriculture and pharmaceuticals.

“This is another step in what has been a good-faith effort in a continuing dialogue by all sides,” U.S. Trade Representative Susan C. Schwab said.

The Democrats also called for the identification of major new World Trade Organization cases to break down foreign barriers and establishment of a U.S. “trade enforcer” to prepare WTO cases and a trade prosecutor to file them.

They called for a reinvigorated role for Congress, creation of a workers’ assistance and training initiative to promote education, training and portable health and pension benefits, and creation of an expanded program of trade and aid to foster development in poor countries.

Thea Lee, AFL-CIO policy director called the proposal “a significant step forward in fixing the Bush administration’s broken trade policy.”

She said that, while the proposal does not address all of the labor organization’s concerns, it “does represent major progress on core workers’ rights and environmental standards. It also addresses long-neglected concerns such as currency, trade enforcement and other key issues.”

Christopher Wenk, senior director for international policy at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, called the proposal “the next step” in finding a bipartisan agreement on U.S. trade policy.

“The devil’s in the details,” he added. “We have to see where this proposal goes from here.”

Frank Vargo, vice president of international economic affairs at the National Association of Manufacturers, said the trade group understands the proposal is part of the negotiating process. The organization wants “a compromise that works on a bipartisan basis, works for the administration and, most importantly, works for America’s manufacturers, farmers, and services providers.”

“Time is short, and we hope that the ongoing bipartisan effort moves quickly.”

• This article is based in part on wire service reports.


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