CLINTON PITCHES FAST TRACK
Byline: Jim Ostroff / Joyce Barrett
WASHINGTON — President Clinton warned Friday the U.S. risks ending up in the backwaters of global trade unless it quickly expands free trade to Latin American nations.
“There is no reason to think other nations will wait while we sit idle,” the President said.
In a speech to the American Society of Newspaper Editors that was billed as his first effort to win Congressional approval for fast-track negotiating authority, Clinton said, “Last year, for the first time ever, Latin American nations had more trade with Europe than the U.S.”
Several of his administration’s trade advisers have noted during industry seminars that the European Union in particular has begun talks that could lead to free trade between its member nations and many of Latin America’s more robust economies.
Ever since the North American Free Trade Agreement went into force on Jan. 1, 1994, Clinton has said he wanted to begin talks with Chile and then Argentina and Brazil to bring them into the pact.
However, Congress let fast-track authority lapse right after it approved U.S. entry into the World Trade Organization in 1994. U.S. trade officials say it is impossible to negotiate without this device, which permits Congress only to vote on approving a trade treaty; no amendments are permitted.
Clinton has not until now vigorously sought Congressional approval for fast-track reauthorization, which more or less was given routinely during the Reagan and Bush administrations.
He shied away from doing so, according to trade and political analysts, because organized labor insisted any future trade deals, like NAFTA, include labor rights and environmental protection provisions. Inclusion of such provisions in NAFTA-expansion talks is seen as a big vote-loser with a GOP-dominated Congress.
But now negotiations on fast track between the White House and Congress have already begun. U.S. Trade Representative Charlene Barshefsky made several trips to Capitol Hill last week, and more are planned this week with groups of Democrats and Republicans. She also plans meetings with Rep. Phil Crane (R., Ill.), chairman of the House Trade Subcommittee, and Rep. Bill Archer (R., Tex.), chairman of the House Trade Subcommittee, who are responsible for originating any trade legislation in Congress.
Barshefsky met for more than an hour last week with Democratic freshmen. Rep. Jim Davis (D., Fla.), president of the freshmen Democrats, was in the meeting and said the administration would have an uphill job convincing his classmates that more free trade agreements and a fast-track extension were in the best interests of the U.S. economy.
“There will be a heavy burden of proof on the administration on the advantages of fast track,” Davis said after the meeting. “This meeting was [just] the first step in convincing us.”
The administration is expected to avoid a certain confrontation with Congressional Republicans by dropping its request that labor and environmental protections be a part of any fast-track authority. This decision could pose a problem for Democrats, however, who prefer to link trade to such protections.
House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt (D., Mo.) has been vociferous in his insistence that trade be linked to labor and environmental protections. He is expected to oppose the administration’s fast-track request. Rep. Robert Matsui (D., Calif.), senior Democrat on the House Trade Subcommittee, said that Gephardt’s opposition would pose a “formidable” obstacle to the administration’s success in getting fast-track approved by Congress this year.