Byline: Joanna Ramey

WASHINGTON — President Bush reassured officials from Western Hemisphere countries in a Tuesday speech that the U.S. is serious about a Free Trade Area of the Americas pact, even though Congress hasn’t yet given him the negotiating authority to complete the pact.
“We must affirm our commitment to complete negotiations of a Free Trade Area of the Americas by January 2005,” Bush told the gathering of diplomats and officials with the Organization of American States.
Bush’s speech set the tone for U.S. participation in the three-day Summit of the Americas in Quebec, which starts Friday. This will be the third such summit. Trade will be part of a broader agenda of strengthening the economies and democracies in the region.
The President, in office just under three months, has thus far been stymied in achieving his oft-repeated goal of forging ahead with an FTAA and other trade pacts. He’s been hamstrung because he lacks fasttrack authority, now referred to as trade promotion authority.
The power, which has to be granted by Congress, would mean the administration could negotiate trade deals without lawmakers being able to amend them. The authority is crucial because other countries typically won’t engage in tariff-reducing talks without such an assurance.
Congress has been stalemated over granting trade-promotion authority. Trade lawmakers and their staffs are wrangling over how the controversial authority can contain labor and environmental standards, seen necessary to garner votes from globalization critics.
Bush reassured OAS members he would get trade promotion authority.
“We will intensify this effort when I return from Quebec,” Bush said. “We will succeed.”
Should some kind of labor and environment standards be mandated, Bush then would face a hard sell with many of the 33 other FTAA countries that oppose trade being tied to improving labor and environment standards. In the last FTAA meeting held in Buenos Aires earlier in the month, the administration faced protest when it floated labor and environment standard ideas.
Apparel trade lobbyist Ron Sorini, a former U.S. textile negotiator during the NAFTA talks, said Bush and the FTAA trading partners are in the early stages of a diplomatic dance over the labor and environment issues.
“There’s been so much negative connotation around labor and the environment that initially the sheer mention of those words in a trade forum will illicit a negative reaction,” Sorini said. “Once our trading partners understand the U.S. is determined and feels strongly, you will have some progress.”
However, Sorini said he wouldn’t expect any resolution of the issue to occur during the Quebec summit.
“It’s too early for that,” he said. “The issue will get resolved by trade ministers and negotiators in the future.”