Thursday, July 24, 2003

The House yesterday easily approved free-trade agreements with Chile and Singapore in a major victory for the Bush administration.

The pacts are the biggest free-trade deals voted on by the House since lawmakers approved NAFTA with Canada and Mexico a decade ago. Bush administration officials hope yesterday’s passage opens the door for two-way agreements with at least a dozen more countries.

“What you will see Congress voting on … is what we hope will be the first in a series of agreements,” Robert B. Zoellick, the U.S. trade representative, said before the House roll calls.

Chile and Singapore would be the fifth and sixth free-trade agreements for the United States. The Bush administration would like to add Australia, Morocco, five countries in Central America and five in southern Africa in the next two years.

Mr. Zoellick also said that he would like to formally start negotiations with the Dominican Republic and the Persian Gulf nation of Bahrain in 2004.

Administration officials hope the most recent pacts will add momentum to talks for broader trade deals.

Global trade talks among 146 nations at the World Trade Organization are bogging down. A hemisphere-wide agreement dubbed the Free Trade Area of the Americas also has hit rough patches.

Republican leaders see yesterday’s vote as a watershed and the two pacts as the first of several more to come.

“The Chile and Singapore [free-trade agreements] … are laying the groundwork and establishing high benchmarks for future free-trade agreements,” said Rep. Philip M. Crane, Illinois Republican, a key legislator on trade issues.

Pro-trade business leaders praised the deals yesterday.

“These agreements are state-of-the-art. They re-establish American determination to exert leadership on future trade deals,” said Thomas Donohue, U.S. Chamber of Commerce president.

Organized labor mounted an intense campaign against the deals, saying they would cost jobs.

Teamsters President James Hoffa earlier this week threatened to withhold union support from lawmakers, including Democrats, who vote for the agreements.

“You are either with the American worker or against the American worker,” he said.

But the deals passed easily, 272-155 for Singapore and 270-156 for Chile; 75 of the 205 House Democrats defied the union.

A Teamsters’ spokesman did not return phone calls seeking comment on yesterday’s vote.

Some Democrats were cautious with their support, warning that the Chile and Singapore agreements should not be used as templates, especially for agreements under negotiation for a Central American Free Trade Agreement.

“CAFTA is the real test,” said Rep. Sander M. Levin, Michigan Democrat and a leader for his party on trade issues.

The Senate, generally more supportive of free trade than the House, is expected to cast a final vote on Chile and Singapore next week, a Senate aide said yesterday.

President Bush then would be able to sign the first free-trade agreements negotiated under hard-won trade-promotion authority, approved by Congress almost a year ago. The authority allows the White House to negotiate trade agreements and submit them to Congress for a yes-or-no vote without amendments.

“In some ways, the trade-promotion authority was the hardest step and now we’re trying to build on it,” Mr. Zoellick said.

The agreements with Chile and Singapore are the United States’ first with a South American and an Asian nation.

Chile is a relatively small trade partner but is seen as strategically important because of ongoing talks with other nations in Latin America.

Under the deal, tariffs on more than 85 percent of consumer and industrial products traded between the United States and Chile would be eliminated immediately, markets for services such as banking and express delivery would be opened, intellectual property would be better protected, and labor and environmental laws would have to be enforced.

The United States’ biggest exports to Chile include parts and accessories for computers, radio equipment, construction equipment, gas turbines and fertilizers. Chile sends copper products, grapes, fish, wood products, wine and other goods to the United States.

Singapore is the United States’ 12th-largest trade partner.

The agreement would eliminate all tariffs on goods, grant new market access for U.S. banking, securities and insurance companies, and offer strong intellectual property protection, according to Mr. Zoellick’s office.

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