Jewish World Review April 3, 2001 / 10 Nissan 5761
Coming soon: A battle royal over
TOUGH though it may be for President Bush to get his tax cut,
Medicare and energy plans through Congress this year,
free-trade legislation is likely to be even tougher.
Then-President Bill Clinton persuaded House Democrats to go
along with some open trade measures - none too
enthusiastically - but he failed to convert them from bedrock
As a result, pro-trade Democrats estimate that they can
produce only 20 to 25 votes to pass the kind of trade legislation
they expect from Bush, requiring Republicans to muster 195 to
200 votes, a daunting task.
Some Republicans say the Democrats are low-balling in an effort
to get Bush to yield on their favorite issues, labor and
environmental standards, and that the high-tech industry
ultimately will ensure that Democrats come around. The Senate
generally supports free trade.
To change the House climate, Bush's brilliant and indefatigable
trade chief, Robert Zoellick, is working nonstop, visiting and
consulting with Democrats - even such hard cases as AFL-CIO
President John Sweeney and Rep. Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.).
As a top State Department official under Bush's father, Zoellick
helped create the Asian-Pacific Economic Cooperation
organization, now a major link among Pacific Basin nations. He
also created the plan for German reunification when the Berlin
So far, as Bush's trade representative, Zoellick has tried to woo
adversaries by extending the Clinton policy of not punishing
African nations when they evade patents on AIDS drugs and
has signaled that he will be flexible on labor and environmental
But there are limits to how far a Republican administration can
go. It's inconceivable that it would accept a provision in any
major trade agreement that would allow trade sanctions to be
imposed if labor and environmental standards aren't met.
Republicans would bolt.
It's not exactly clear what the administration's trade schedule
is, but Bush can be expected to start talking about the subject
any minute because next month he is participating in a summit
meeting of Western Hemisphere leaders in Quebec. The chief
topic is a hemispheric free-trade area.
Two trade pacts signed by the Clinton administration, with
Jordan and Vietnam, await Congressional action. The Jordan
agreement contains labor and environmental standards.
But the true deadline for major legislative action is in November,
when the next World Trade Organization summit occurs in the
Arab emirate of Qatar, where a new global round of trade talks
is supposed to be launched.
The last WTO meeting, in Seattle in 1999, turned into a riotous
disaster. That won't happen in far-off Qatar, but officials are
mildly worried because the Persian Gulf state's name is
pronounced "gutter," and trade talks will bear that discrediting
Regardless, in advance of the WTO meeting, the administration
wants Congress to grant it what used to be called "fast track"
authority, which Zoellick and pro-free trade Rep. David Dreier
(R-Calif.) this winter renamed "trade-promotion authority."
By either name, Congress would give up the right to amend
major trade agreements and could only vote them up or down.
The presidency has been without fast-track authority since
1993. Clinton twice tried to get it and was blocked, largely
because Democrats sided with the labor movement against him.
Some Democrats say that labor's sway has increased in their
Caucus because corporations and corporate PACs now give less
money to out-of-power Democrats.
Polls reveal that Americans think, by a margin of about 50 to 35
percent, that foreign trade is bad for the U.S. economy. Zoellick
told a group of journalists last week that there has been "a slow
erosion of support for trade."
To rebuild it, he has been emphasizing that while trade pacts
are proliferating around the globe - opening markets and
lowering tariffs for their participants - the United States is
losing the opportunity to sell goods and set standards.
There are 130 free-trade agreements in effect, he says, but
America is party to only two, with Mexico, Canada and Israel.
Europe has 27 and is negotiating 15 more.
Zoellick is also making the case that trade pacts can strengthen
our security interests, as in the Middle East, and spread our
political values, as Mexico's shift toward full democracy
To show how tough the road ahead is, however, when Zoellick
earlier this month proposed to bundle all pending and proposed
trade legislation into one omnibus package, the idea was
attacked by House Ways and Means Committee Democrats,
He wants to lump trade-promotion authority together with the
Jordan and Vietnam pacts, as well as reauthorize an
Andean-nation agreement and a proposal to assist workers hurt
by low-cost imports.
The 28 Democrats on Ways and Means declared in a letter that
bundling "will result in increased opposition rather than increased
support for action this year."
Their argument was about tactics, but they used the old term
"fast track" to describe the most difficult piece in the package -
the one Zoellick most wants to pass. One free-trade Democrat
said on that, "The prospect is
JWR contributor Morton Kondracke is executive editor of Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill. Send your comments by clicking here.
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