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Jewish World Review April 3, 2001 / 10 Nissan 5761

Morton Kondracke

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Coming soon: A battle royal over free trade -- 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 protectionism.

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 Wall fell.

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 standards.

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 moniker.

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 demonstrates.

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, freetraders included.

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 bleak."

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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