HOUSE WAYS AND MEANS GIVES NOD TO FAST TRACK
Byline: Joyce Barrett
WASHINGTON — A proposal to give President Clinton fast-track authority in pursuing trade pacts was approved Wednesday by the House Ways and Means Committee with the backing of four of 16 Democrats, a tally that encouraged opponents of the pact while alarming free-trade advocates.
Whether this proposal — a compromise between House Republicans and the White House — goes before the full House is yet to be decided by GOP leadership, but Ways and Means Committee chairman Bill Archer (R., Tx.), said he wanted the full membership to be given the chance to vote on it.
The proposal passed the committee by a 24-14 tally, in which just two of the panel’s 23 Republicans opposed it, while one did not vote.
Reviewing the vote at a press conference, Archer said, “The cause of free trade is in trouble.”
He noted that the proposal, which was hammered out this week, was “good enough for President Clinton…why isn’t it good enough for House Democrats?”
Throughout the fast-track debate, Republicans have repeatedly set their expectations for Democratic support, and Wednesday Archer said he wanted at least 80 or 90 of the 206 House Democrats to support it should it go before the full House. He predicted a majority of the 228 Republicans would back it, although he noted that about 60 percent of House Republicans are relatively new to Congress and so have never voted on fast track or any major trade initiative.
“We can’t be certain where the votes are,” he said.
So far just about two dozen House Democrats have committed to voting for fast track, and the Democratic point man for the White House on trade matters, Rep. Bob Matsui (D., Calif.), would not predict Wednesday how many Democrats would ultimately support it. He expressed relief at winning the backing Wednesday of four panel Democrats.
“We just wanted to get through this vote,” Matsui said.
Rep. Sander Levin (D., Mich.), a House Democrat who opposed the bill because it limits the administration’s authority to include labor and environmental standards in trade pacts, said the vote was encouraging.
“I think this vote diminishes the chances of fast track,” he told reporters after the vote. “This bill cannot withstand open discussion.”
Many House Democrats have denounced the committee’s proposal, along with President Clinton’s initial fast-track request unveiled in mid-September, because it did not link trade to labor and environmental protections. Senate Democrats have not been as ardent in their criticism and the Senate Finance Committee completed work on its fast-track version last week in a voice vote.
The administration is seeking fast track, which expired in 1994, because it says it’s critical to the pursuit of free trade pacts. Pacts negotiated under fast track cannot be amended by Congress but can only be approved or denied under a strict timetable, and so the administration says that foreign governments feel freer to negotiate treaties under fast track.
President Clinton leaves Sunday for a week-long trip to Venezuela, Brazil and Argentina and had initially hoped to have fast track in hand in talks with the leaders of the rapidly growing Latin American economies. Levin said that Democrats were not trying to embarrass the President on the eve of his trip and insisted that instead, they were “trying to create sound economic policy for the country.”
Clinton has turned his attention to the fast-track debate this week and met or talked with Democrats on the Ways and Means Committee Tuesday and early Wednesday. A business coalition of some 500 major firms and associations, including the National Retail Federation, has mounted a multimillion-dollar media campaign in targeted Congressional districts in the past few weeks. It plans to step up its work next week, while members of Congress are home for a week-long recess, and air two new radio spots and two new television spots in 104 Congressional districts and 24 media markets. Some $600,000 is to be spent next week by the group called America Leads on Trade.
Organized labor, meanwhile, is continuing to run its media and grass-roots anti-fast-track campaign in targeted districts. In a statement after the committee action, John Sweeney, president of the AFL-CIO, said that labor would “redouble its efforts…to urge our elected representatives to take a stand against the failed and inequitable trade policies of the past so we can begin to build a consensus toward a fair trade policy for the future.”
Archer was optimistic that once the business-sponsored campaign kicks in, attitudes toward fast track will change among House members.
“Hopefully, sentiment will improve,” he said. “Those who understand the importance of free trade will be actively pursuing this cause over the next two weeks. Not only better-paying jobs from exports are created, but there is a ripple effect throughout the entire economy.” He attributed the recent economic boom in the U.S. to free-trade policies.