HOUSE VERSION OF FAST-TRACK BILL TO SET TERMS OF BATTLE WHEN DETAILS UNVEILED
Byline: Joyce Barrett
WASHINGTON — With predictions that the Senate will pass a fast-track bill for negotiating trade pacts, the focus now turns to the House, where a new version of the legislation is to be unveiled early next week.
The Senate version of fast track, approved Wednesday by the Finance Committee, is expected to be bolstered by support from the business community.
“Business will get strongly behind this bill,” Sen. Phil Gramm (R., Tex.) told reporters. “If you’re for free trade, you’re for this bill….We have the votes in the Senate to pass this.”
Once details of the House bill — drafted by Reps. Bill Archer (R., Tex.), chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, Phil Crane (R., Ill.), House Trade Subcommittee chairman, and the Clinton administration — are divulged, however, the real battle over fast track will commence. The past two weeks, in which President Clinton’s fast-track bill has been blitzed from all sides, have just been a prelude to the real war of winning votes for the controversial proposal.
“It will be an unbelievably audacious battle,” predicted Rep. Jim Kolbe (R., Ariz.), who will be among the leaders on the Republican side in enlisting support.
The Senate fast-track bill would extend the authority four years until Oct. 1, 2001, and would permit a four-year extension until Oct. 1, 2005. Like fast-track authorities in the past, it would prohibit Congress from changing pacts once they are sent to Capitol Hill by the administration for approval or denial. Unlike Clinton’s plan, the Senate version does not include labor and environmental standards as a trade negotiating goal. Instead, it states that U.S. trading partners cannot lower labor, health and safety, or environmental standards to attract investment or restrict U.S. imports. It also states that U.S. laws on labor and environment would not be changed because of trade pacts.
The linking of labor and environmental standards to trade pacts — an issue fostered by many Democrats — has been the point that most concerned Republicans and business.
U.S. Trade Representative Charlene Barshefsky, who assisted Senate Finance in wrapping up final details on its bill, said it was “fully consistent with the President’s objectives.”
Senate Democrat leader Tom Daschle (D., S.D.) said Thursday that the Finance Committee’s measure was “moving in the right direction,” but he withheld his opinion.
“We’re still not out of the woods yet,” he said. “It’s certainly more progress than the Democrats expected.”
Details of Archer’s bill for the House are still being negotiated, and sources say it’s expected to differ somewhat from the Senate fast-track version approved Wednesday by the Finance Committee.
Its overall goal of separating labor and environmental protections from trade negotiating goals, however, matches the Senate plan and so could form the basis for a fast-track plan that business, congressional Republicans and Democrats and the Clinton White House can rally around.
Business, which has been criticized for not actively engaging in a lobbying effort for fast track, likely will “step up in a bigger way,” said Robert Hall, vice president, international trade counsel for the National Retail Federation.
Retail executives were on Capitol Hill earlier this week lobbying for fast track, Hall said, declining to identify them, and more retailers are expected to travel here next week.
“We’re on track to get fast track back on track,” Hall said. The Senate bill, Hall said, “will buy more Republican and business support and so is a step in the right direction.”
The House Ways and Means Committee is tentatively set to complete work on the Archer-Crane bill Wednesday, and the pressure will be on Democrats to come up with enough votes in committee to show they can substantially supplement Republican backers of fast track once it hits the floor of the House.
“If the Democrats just produce one or two fast-track votes, Republicans will just fold and that’s the end of it,” Kolbe said.
A Democratic aide predicted that four or five votes could be attained among Democratic committee members, which Republicans have said would be enough of a show of support to keep fast track moving.