CLINTON PRESENTS FAST-TRACK REQUEST TO CONGRESS
Byline: Joyce Barrett / Jim Ostroff
WASHINGTON — President Clinton, as expected, asked Congress on Tuesday to renew fast-track authority to negotiate new trade agreements, which he said are vital to secure America’s economic growth in the new century.
However, in transmitting the proposal to Congress, Clinton did not specify which nations the U.S. hopes to engage in trade talks, but in general terms he cited Latin America and Asia.
Most analysts believe talks aimed at bringing Chile into the North American Free Trade Agreement head the administration’s list.
The President’s proposal was well received by Capitol Hill Republicans, who appeared satisfied that Clinton resisted strong demands from some Democrats to include labor standards and environmental protections in trade agreements.
Instead, Clinton said he would negotiate labor and environmental issues as side agreements, just as he did with NAFTA.
“It’s the right approach, and we’re on the right track,” said Rep. Jim Kolbe (R., Ariz.), a House trade leader. “We’re late, but at least we’re moving.”
Rep. Bob Matsui (D., Calif.), who will lead the administration’s effort on Capitol Hill to win Democratic votes, is confident that fast-track will be granted this session, but noted that there are still many members who are undecided.
“We think the administration’s language on worker rights, environment and agriculture will give adequate protection to American consumers,” Matsui said.
Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R., Miss.) was noncommittal, but predicted that the Senate could complete its work on it before adjournment.
Senate democratic leader Tom Daschle (D., S.D.), who raised last-minute questions with the administration about labor, environmental and agricultural concerns, said about the President’s bill: “We’re not there yet. There is still a lot of negotiating to do.”
Clinton and Vice President Al Gore traveled to Capitol Hill late Tuesday to brief Democrats on the measure.
Republicans are expected to provide the majority of votes for the initiative, but they can’t muster enough votes to assure passage without Democratic support.
Rep. Bill Archer (R., Tex.), chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, which has jurisdiction over trade matters, has not set a date for consideration of the fast-track bill, but it’s expected to move quickly through the panel.
Matsui said he expected to see it reach the House floor by mid-October, in the hopes of giving the Senate time to consider it before Congress adjourns in early November.
Organized labor, as expected, is strongly opposing the extension of fast-track and is launching television ads in more than a dozen Congressional districts opposing it.
The bill, if enacted by Congress, would permit the President to negotiate trade agreements and submit them to the lawmakers for an up or down vote only, with no amendments being permitted.
This is seen as crucial, since most other nations will not negotiate with the U.S. knowing that the pact could be laden down with Congressional provisos.
Clinton has asked for this fast-track authority through Oct. 1, 2001, with a provision that it be extended through Sept. 30, 2005, upon the President’s request, subject to disapproval by either the House or Senate.
Congress routinely granted presidents this authority, but fast-track lapsed in 1995 and Clinton did not seek immediate renewal, recognizing strong opposition — mainly from Democrats — who contend NAFTA has cost American workers their jobs.
The new proposal seeks to allay some of these concerns by stipulating U.S. negotiators must consider “important domestic policy objectives, such as protection of human health and the environment” into account when negotiating trade agreements.
Clinton also said consultation with Congress would be expanded and that industry advisers would be part of the negotiating process.
In a message sent to Congress along with the fast-track bill, Clinton said the U.S. must be able to freely export to the nations of Latin America and Asia, whose economies he said are expected to expand at three times the rate of ours in the coming years.
Noting that the U.S.’s strong economic growth in this decade “has been fueled in significant part by the strength of our dynamic export sector,” Clinton warned the U.S. would “squander our great advantages” by allowing other nations to conclude preferential trade pacts among themselves. Trade analysts have noted with alarm the European Union’s initiatives to conclude free trade deals with South American trade blocs.