SENATE APPROVES ZOELLICK
Byline: Joanna Ramey
WASHINGTON — The Senate voted overwhelmingly to approve Robert Zoellick as U.S. Trade Representative on Tuesday, but not before the Bush administration was reminded of the looming battle it’s about to have in Congress over expanding trade.
Sen. Max Baucus (D., Mont.), generally one of several Democratic allies President Bush has on trade, said in comments before the vote that he would work against the administration’s trade agenda “unless labor and environmental issues are meaningfully addressed” in trade agreements.
Baucus laid down these conditions in relation to Congress granting the President fast-track negotiating authority needed to complete a Free Trade Agreement of the Americas and other trade pacts. The authority would allow the President to negotiate trade agreements without Congress having the ability to amend them before they come up for approval.
For eight years, disagreement over whether U.S. market access should be tied to a trading partner’s enforcing or improving their labor and environmental standards has hampered U.S. efforts at major bilateral trade pacts.
Supporters of including these standards in trade treaties, such as organized labor, argue that underdeveloped countries with lax labor and environmental laws have a competitive advantage over U.S. industries. The business lobby in general has eschewed tying trade to such standards.
President Bush has said he’d support addressing these twin issues, but neither he nor Zoellick have offered details. Baucus, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee and thus the leader for his party in the chamber on trade issues, said he doesn’t have any suggestions on how to forge a compromise.
However, Baucus said: “Like it or not, environment and labor issues are firmly on the trade agenda.” He cited the Clinton administration’s inclusion of labor standards in the Jordan Free Trade Agreement and in a Cambodia bilateral textile agreement as an example of how the issues can be addressed.
The public also needs to be won over in terms of supporting trade legislation and having labor and the environmental standards would help, Baucus said.
“We must demonstrate to all citizens that [trade] contributes to American prosperity,” he said.
Democratic support for Bush’s trade agenda is particularly crucial in the Senate, where the parties are split 50-50. While the administration could muster one more vote from Vice President Dick Cheney in case of a tie, cooperation from Democrats is crucial in order to secure 60 votes to cut off a filibuster.
Aside from Baucus’s comments, other Senators expressed concern about U.S. trade policy hurting domestic agriculture. But no one disagreed over Zoellick’s qualifications to become the USTR. The Senate vote for Zoellick, a trade policy guru who has worked in two Republican administrations, was approved on a 98-0 vote.
Ron Sorini, president of trade negotiations and legislative affairs at the law firm of Sandler & Travis, which has a large apparel importer clientele, said Baucus’s comments underscore the need for the administration and Capitol Hill lawmakers to negotiate a resolution to the labor and environmental and trade debate.
Sorini said: “We’re going to have to work on building a common approach to this issue.”