GOP-DEMOCRAT DIVIDE CLOUDS TRADE AGENDA
Byline: Joanna Ramey
WASHINGTON — It’s summertime but the going doesn’t look easy for global companies counting on Congress to quickly dispatch trade-expanding legislation.
For retailers hankering to see already-passed bankruptcy reform legislation sent to the President, however, there may be an end game in sight.
The expectation at the White House and among Republican leaders in Congress was to tackle an ambitious trade agenda in June and July, which included voting to grant President Bush trade-promotion authority needed to start negotiating tariff reductions for a Free Trade Area of the Americas.
But with Democrats now in charge of the Senate and its agenda, the once-imposing Republican-controlled congressional agenda, with trade as a centerpiece, has been knocked off kilter. Trade has also been set aside so lawmakers can tackle crucial government funding bills.
“It’s just starting to pose a concern,” said Dale Apley, divisional vice president of public policy at Kmart Corp., of the delay in addressing trade, which includes measures to drop duties on apparel made in Andean countries of U.S. textiles.
Even when trade is taken up, the issue of whether pacts should contain labor and environmental standards has to be addressed, something Republican leadership continues to eschew, but which Democrats are largely backing.
“Every month you move closer to the 2002 [congressional] elections makes it more difficult to do a trade vote,” Apley said.
On Monday, Bush didn’t even mention trade in laying out his wish list for Congress before it adjourns next month, even though it has been high on his legislative list since taking office. Bush did cite passage of a House, GOP-leadership-backed health maintenance reform bill that maintains employer protections from lawsuits. The bill, backed by business, will be competing with one containing employer liability, which has Democrat and moderate Republican support and passed the chamber last year. A similar bill passed the Senate last month and would drop lawsuit protections for large, self-insured companies, like Wal-Mart and Kmart.
It’s unclear which bill will emerge from the House, said Chris Tampio, director of employment and benefits policy at the International Mass Retail Association.
Other issues likely to be tackled by Congress this month before lawmakers leave town, include:
Starting long-stalled, House-Senate talks reconciling differences in bankruptcy reform legislation that passed both chambers earlier this year. A legislative priority for retailers, the issue could fall victim to squabbling over whether states can shield the expensive houses of debtors from creditors.
Settling the bitter dispute between Sen. Jesse Helms (R., N.C.) and Treasury officials over proposed U.S. Customs regulations involving the Caribbean Basin trade bill. Customs would grant duty breaks to apparel made in the Caribbean of U.S. textiles, even if the fabric is dyed and finished in the region, which Helms opposes. The senator is holding up confirmation of Treasury nominees as a cudgel and last week appealed to President Bush for help after recent meetings with Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill failed to meet his concerns.
Voting, in the Senate on a Democratic bill increasing the $5.15 federal minimum wage by $1.50 over 18 months. Republicans plan to push for a package of modest small-business tax breaks to attach to the bill, like deduction of health insurance costs for the self-employed. The outlook for other tax breaks businesses had hoped to score — like increasing depreciation of store renovations — is increasingly bleak, given that expected government surpluses aren’t materializing because of the economic slowdown.