Byline: Joanna Ramey

WASHINGTON — With little dissent, the Senate Finance Committee on Wednesday voted 18-3 to enhance the Bush administration’s trade negotiating power.
The bill, seen as key by the White House in pressing its broad trade agenda, now heads to the Senate floor, where Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D., S.D.) plans to wait until next year to bring it up, despite cries by the business lobby to vote before Congress adjourns for the year. Daschle has said he wants to give the issue plenty of time for debate.
The legislation would renew the President’s trade promotion authority. With it, Congress couldn’t amend trade agreements, which the administration claims is needed in order for trading partners to seriously negotiate.
The measure is a version of a bill that sparked huge controversy in the House over the direction of U.S. trade policy and the effect of increased trade on U.S. jobs in the textile, steel and other industries. The House eventually approved the bill last week by one vote. The legislation is meeting with less opposition in the Senate, particularly among a core group of moderate Democrats friendly to business interests.
Getting TPA through Congress has been problematic, and attempts to renew it over the last seven years have failed.
The House-passed version and an almost identical bill in the Senate seeks to address TPA critics by insuring, among other things, that U.S. negotiators don’t weaken U.S. law in making deals. In addition, negotiators would have to prohibit trading partners from weakening labor and environmental laws in order to gain trade advantages.
Critics, with organized labor and environmental concerns leading the charge, argue that worker and environmental standards should be negotiated in pacts, to bolster already weak laws.
Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D., Mont.) said Wednesday that the TPA measure signals progress in tackling trade issues that don’t involve tariffs and that might otherwise harm U.S. businesses.
In a nod to lawmakers concerned about the impact of trade on jobs, Baucus said he wants the Senate, while voting on TPA, to also consider a bill increasing unemployment and training benefits for workers displaced by trade. Such a move isn’t expected to be blocked.

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