HOUSE FAST-TRACK BILL HITS RESISTANCE
Byline: Joyce Barrett
WASHINGTON — The Clinton administration withheld support of a preliminary House Republican fast-track proposal unveiled Monday, and a House Democratic aide said unless it includes a stronger connection between trade and labor and environmental protections, Democrats won’t back it.
Bill Archer (R., Tex.), chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, unveiled his plan and promised that his committee, which is charged with originating all trade legislation in Congress, will vote to advance it to the full floor on Wednesday. Negotiations on final details of the controversial proposal were ongoing late Monday with the administration. A spokeswoman for the U.S. Trade Representative would only say that the administration “needs time to evaluate” Archer’s proposal.
The House aide, who works for a pro-fast-track member, said the Archer plan “is not something that Democrats can support as it stands now.”
Archer’s plan is the third fast-track proposal to surface in a month and is significant because now the parameters of the debate have been set. In addition to Archer’s bill, the Senate Finance Committee last week completed work on its version, which is very similar to the House plan. President Clinton unveiled his variation last month. It was unacceptable to business and Congressional Republicans because it linked labor and environmental standards to trade negotiations.
The business community, however, which has been hesitant to personally lobby members of Congress for fast track because of objections to Clinton’s plan, is rallying behind Archer’s version and is expected to step up its efforts today to insure broad bipartisan support among Democrats and Republicans on Archer’s influential panel. Last weekend, a coalition of some 500 pro-fast-track business groups launched a radio campaign in 13 metropolitan markets that are home to 13 members of the committee.
The National Retail Federation, which is a member of the America Leads on Trade coalition, is mounting its own grass-roots campaign in targeted congressional districts today with special attention to members of the Ways and Means Committee. The retail industry has a stake in the advancement of trade pacts because more open markets means improved sourcing and expansion opportunities.
Archer noted that time is running out on the congressional calendar for fast track, since Congress is seeking to adjourn for the year in early November.
“This is a window of opportunity that gets smaller and smaller as time goes on,” Archer said. “If we don’t get this done this year, we won’t get fast track before the end of this century.”
Archer’s bill is similar to the bill approved last week by the Senate Finance Committee in that it would extend the negotiating authority until Oct. 1, 2001, and would permit an additional four-year extension unless Congress disapproves. Fast track prohibits Congress from changing trade pacts sent to it, restricting the House and Senate to approving or denying agreements.
The House bill would permit side agreements on labor and environment — but not as part of the trade pact — just as the North American Free Trade Agreement did. It also would prohibit countries from lowering their labor and environmental standards as a ploy to attract foreign investment. The Senate bill would do the same things, and differences Democrats see between the two plans are difficult to discern, but the debate continues, perhaps as a ploy to strengthen the House bill when it comes to labor and environment.
Congressional Democrats are split. Most House Democrats, led by Dick Gephardt (D., Mo.), insist that labor and environmental protections be negotiated in future trade agreements. A handful oppose that idea. The White House is trying to strike a balance between the Democrats’ factions but is finding middle ground scarce.
Republicans, who are expected to deliver the majority of votes needed for approval of fast track, are resistant to any link between labor and environmental protection and trade agreements.
On another trade issue, Archer said in a Capitol Hill press conference Monday that he was hesitant to advance a bill that would broaden trade privileges to Caribbean Basin countries similar to those given Mexico under NAFTA because of the costs, and because it did not have broad bipartisan support. He appeared more inclined to move a bill that would liberalize textile trade with qualifying African states because it has “tremendous bipartisan support.”
Archer also recommended that Clinton take a more active role in mustering support among Hill Democrats for fast track. “Mr. President, it is essential that you become involved in this effort,” he said. “This has to be the number-one priority in your office.”