Byline: Joanna Ramey

WASHINGTON — The centerpiece of the Bush administration’s trade agenda — securing trade negotiating authority from Congress — will likely wait until this summer or early fall, Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R., Miss.) said Tuesday.
Lott said he had a meeting the day before with Robert Zoellick, U.S. Trade Representative-designee, who offered the Bush administration’s timetable to ask Congress for this green light to complete trade pacts like the Free Trade Agreement of the Americas.
Granting the authority, often called fast track, would mean Congress can’t amend completed trade agreements before they’re put before a vote. Foreign governments look for such assurances before entering into lengthy negotiations.
“It is something I believe will be a priority,” Lott told reporters regarding fast track, speaking at a news conference attended by Vice President Dick Cheney, who declined to talk about the administration’s trade policy plans.
After securing fast track to successfully negotiate NAFTA, the Clinton administration was unsuccessful in getting the authority again because of dissent among lawmakers, mostly from a group of House Democrats angry over the direction of U.S. trade policy. They want granting fast track to be contingent on trade agreements containing labor and environmental standards, with U.S. market access granted or increased based on a country meeting set standards.
However, in the House, where trade legislation must originate, stumbling blocks remain.
“Our position on this is pretty clear,” House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt (D., Mo.) told WWD, reiterating the position in his caucus for strict labor and environmental standards in trade agreements.
As far as negotiating from this labor-and-environment position, which is anathema to the administration and business, but supported by labor, Gephardt said: “We’ll try. I don’t know whether [the administration] will be receptive to it.”
Erik Autor, vice president and international trade counsel at the National Retail Federation, said delaying a vote on fast track is needed in order to work through the labor-and-environment roadblock.
Autor said, “It’s going to take some time to sit down with the business community and the unions to see if a compromise can be reached so the President’s trade policy can move forward.”
Dale Apley, divisional vice president of public policy at Kmart Corp. speculated whether the fast-track request will be part of a bigger trade bill to include renewal of various trade programs like funding for the Export-Import Bank and Andean Trade Pact. Putting a controversial issue in the midst of otherwise uncontentious measures is often used as a strategy to push legislation through.

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