GEPHARDT TELLS RALLY MOMENTUM AGAINST FAST TRACK IS GROWING
Byline: Joyce Barrett
PHILADELPHIA — At a downtown rally Tuesday across the street from City Hall here, House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt (D., Mo.) told a chanting crowd of union workers that momentum was building against President Clinton’s request for fast-track negotiating authority for trade agreements.
Gephardt, the proposal’s chief opponent in the House, is seizing this week to make the case against fast track on the hustings and plans a similar rally today on Wall Street in Manhattan. Both rallies have been organized by the AFL-CIO.
“We are concerned about unfair trade and competition with other countries that don’t enforce their labor and environmental laws,” Gephardt told the crowd of about 200, comprising mostly union members. “We are building momentum to a vote that will occur later this fall. Working families aren’t afraid of fast track. Working families aren’t afraid of competition. We are concerned about unfair trade.”
Before taking the stage with union leaders, including AFL-CIO president John J. Sweeney, Gephardt told reporters his side “may have enough votes to stop this fast track.”
His beef with the House fast-track plan, which is a compromise reached between Republicans and the Clinton White House, is that it does not require U.S. trading partners to enforce their labor and environmental protections laws.
Even though he continually insists that he does not oppose the idea of fast track, the crowd at Tuesday’s rally didn’t appear to share his philosophy because it repeatedly interrupted his speech with chants, “No more fast track, no more NAFTA.”
Reflecting this mood, Bernard Dinkin, secretary-treasurer of the Philadelphia Joint UNITE board, in an interview during the rally cited U.S. job losses to Mexico and said, “They should not extend fast track until they fix NAFTA. Sometimes, I feel like Don Quixote tilting at windmills, but I think we have a chance of defeating fast track.”
Gephardt says he is drafting an alternative fast-track proposal with Rep. Charles Rangel (D., N.Y.), top Democrat on the influential Ways and Means Committee, who represents parts of Manhattan, site of today’s anti-fast track rally. Gephardt has declined to release details of his alternative.
The administration insists it needs fast-track authority so U.S. trading partners will negotiate further market-opening pacts. Treaties negotiated under fast track cannot be amended by Congress, but can only be approved or denied under a strict timetable.
By taking the anti-fast-track message to some of the largest media markets in the country, Gephardt and organized labor, with the assistance of environmental groups and citizens action organizations, are hoping to sway the opinions of vacillating House members.
Two Democratic House members who include parts of Philadelphia in their districts, Reps. Thomas Foglietta and Robert Borski, voted against NAFTA and, according to aides, haven’t made up their minds on fast track.
The third Democrat, Chaka Fattah, was not in Congress during the NAFTA vote and, according to an aide, is seeking a compromise position between Gephardt and the House fast-track plan.
Former members of Congress say such events rarely influenced their decisions. Bill Frenzel was a Republican Representative from Minnesota from 1971 to 1991. He built a free trade voting record and said that such events didn’t change his mind. He said such events are usually conducted as a “cheerleading effort so unions don’t get overly confident and slow down in what they are doing.” He added, “As far as changing minds, I think not.”
Sam Gibbons, who served in Congress as a Democrat from Florida from 1962 to 1996 and was longtime chairman of the House Trade Subcommittee, agreed that members wouldn’t be influenced by such a rally and dismissed Gephardt’s gatherings by saying, “He’s just running for president.”
Indeed, a union member at Tuesday’s gathering was holding a sign that said, “Working families say no fast track. Gephardt 2000.” Gibbons is a strong free-trader.
Frenzel said he was pessimistic about the chances of fast track passing in the remaining weeks of this Congressional session. He blamed Clinton for waiting too long to unveil his bill and Democrats for not rallying around it.
Gibbons, however, was optimistic about fast-track’s chances. “Eventually members will realize they have no alternative,” he said. “The world won’t stop internationalizing.”
He also predicted that Republican leadership in the House, which is predominantly free-trade minded, doesn’t want to see it defeated. “They don’t want blood on their hands for killing it,” Gibbons said. “They’ll push it through.”