HOUSE COMMITTEE TO WEIGH DEAL WITH ADMINISTRATION ON FAST TRACK
Byline: Joyce Barrett
WASHINGTON — A fast-track compromise between the Clinton White House and House Republicans will face a crucial test today when the House Ways and Means Committee decides whether to advance it to the full House.
And riding on the tailwind of fast track, the panel is set to advance Thursday a plan that would broaden trade benefits to Caribbean Basin countries similar to those given Mexico under the North American Free Trade Agreement.
Leaving nothing to chance in today’s fast-track tally, Clinton met with all 16 Democrats on the influential 39-member panel Tuesday in an effort to muster support for the besieged measure. Panel Democrats must deliver more than a handful of votes today to convince Rep. Bill Archer (R., Tx.), to keep the measure moving.
Republicans, who have traditionally favored expansionist trade policies, are expected to furnish the majority of votes.
The fast-track deal was reached Tuesday after House and administration trade staffers worked until the early morning hours on final details. While very similar to the Senate Finance fast-track version, which was approved last week, the House plan limits more severely Clinton’s authority to tie trade to labor and environmental protections. The compromise language specifies that labor and environmental protections would only be directly related to trade if they insure than foreign labor, environmental, health or safety policies don’t discriminate or act as trade barriers.
At the same time, it would give the administration authority to deal with trading partners who lower labor and environmental standards to attract investment.
The administration says it needs fast-track authority to convince other nations to negotiate with the U.S. Treaties negotiated under fast track can’t be changed by Congress but can only be approved or denied under a strict timetable.
Rep. Bob Matsui (D., Calif.), the top Democrat on the House Trade Subcommittee who is the administration’s point person on fast track, said Tuesday he was not “pessimistic” about fast-track’s chances in the House, but did not diminish the task ahead of him. “We have a really tough battle ahead,” he said. “It will be a long uphill battle.”
Now that agreement has been reached, the fast-track campaign has entered a new phase of retail politics, Matsui said. “It’s not a policy question now, it’s political,” he said. Many Democrats understand that fast track is critical to lowering trade barriers around the world, he said, but are confronted with well-organized opposition from organized labor that has promised to retaliate politically if they back fast track.
Rep. Jim Moran (D., Va.), who spent time Tuesday circulating among his House colleagues looking for fast-track support, estimated that so far about 24 Democrats have committed to backing it. Republicans have said that Democrats must come up with around 70 fast-track votes for it to pass.
Some have speculated that Clinton will be forced to cut deals with House members to win their votes as he did on the NAFTA vote several years ago. Said one congressional aide, members representing the textile industry would be smart to ask the White House for promises on a broad range of textile trade issues in exchange for a fast-track vote.
To counter labor’s opposition, Moran said that the pro-fast-track business community must make a concerted effort to muster Democratic support. Retailers are among those pro-fast-track businesses rallying grass roots support in targeted districts.
As an association, the American Textile Manufacturers Institute is remaining neutral during the fast-track debate. Carlos Moore, ATMI executive vice president, said that fast track could mean good news and bad news to the industry, depending on where trade agreements are negotiated. Thus, ATMI members individually are lobbying Congress either for or against fast track depending on their stance, he said.
The American Apparel Manufacturers Association also is not actively pursuing or opposing fast track, but is actively seeking Caribbean parity, as is ATMI. The House parity bill expected to be considered Thursday is much broader than the Senate Finance Committee’s version, which only grants trade benefits to apparel made of U.S. fabric. The House bill, drafted by Rep. Phil Crane (R., Ill.), grants trade privileges to regional fabric as well.
Some apparel makers, along with retailers and importers, favor Crane’s broader bill.
Carlos Moore said ATMI preferred the more narrowly drawn Senate bill but noted that ATMI would like to come up with a compromise between the two.
The Business Alliance for Trade Agreements, cochaired by Marty Granoff, chairman of Valdor, a men’s and women’s knitwear maker, and Koret of California, a women’s sportswear maker, has so far spent more than $1 million in its Caribbean parity campaign.