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White House to push fast track, faith-based initiatives

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The White House will step up pressure to win passage of fast-track trading authority and the president's faith-based initiative proposal after a pledge this week from House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Illinois, to move those items to the House floor within a month.

Hastert promised the action during a White House meeting late Wednesday. The session was wedged between two higher profile White House meetings, Tuesday with Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain, and Thursday with newly minted Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-South Dakota.

According to White House and congressional sources, Hastert and Bush focused intently on the trade issue and the president urged swift passage. Hastert vowed to bring fast-track trade authority -- which would allow a president to negotiate trade deals and submit them to Congress with no possibility of amendment -- to the House floor in the first week of July.

A proposal for faith-based initiative tax deductions will come to the floor earlier, during the week of June 24, Hastert told the president.

Bush wants fast-track authority to pave the way for negotiations on a Free Trade Area of the Americas pact that would lower tariffs among 33 nations in the Northern and Southern hemispheres. Bush made a big push for the pact at the Summit of the Americas meeting in Quebec City in May. All attendees except Cuba endorsed the goal of negotiating such a pact by Jan. 1, 2005. Fast-track trading authority expired in 1993.

The president and his top trade adviser, Bob Zoellick, have pushed fast-track to the top of Bush's economic and international policy agenda. But the issue carries substantial political risks as House Democrats and Republicans from strong labor districts oppose fast track, also referred to as Trade Promotion Authority.

Opponents say fast-track would inhibit Congress' ability to insert strong provisions in any trade deal that did not provide sufficient labor and environmental protections.

"This is going to be a big battle," an administration official said. "But now's the time to strike. We've passed the tax cut, we're about to wrap up education. Then we'll go to trade. A victory on this would be huge economically and internationally."

Top White House trade advisers hope the president's decision this week to open an investigation into steel imports will alleviate some concerns pro-union lawmakers have about giving Bush such broad powers to negotiate new trade pacts.

The investigation will look into whether steel imports constitute dumping and as such violate U.S. trade laws. Unions and lawmakers in top steel-making states such as Pennsylvania and Ohio pushed hard for the investigation. The move does not guarantee the United States will apply tariffs to steel imports, but leaves open that possibility if the investigation determines unfair steel dumping occurred.

Despite the concerted push from the White House and GOP leaders, some senior GOP staff said winning approval for fast-track authority will require substantial political effort. Among the interest groups the White House has lobbied to join the fray are the high-tech industry, agriculture and major U.S. manufacturers, all of whom would benefit from low-tariff access to more world consumers.

"They're going to have to step up," an administration official said.

"We don't even know where half of our membership is on this issue yet," said one aide. "It will takes weeks to educate them and build the consensus needed to pass this."

As yet, the White House has detected no official softening from organized labor leaders in their opposition to fast-track. Senior trade staff met this week with labor leaders on a range of trade issues. Significantly, however, senior officials note there's been no scathing criticism from the business community -- as had been widely feared.

The faith-based initiative tax change, described by the White House as "charitable choice," would increase the amount taxpayers can deduct for charitable contributions, and allow taxpayers who do not itemize to also take deductions for charitable giving.

House leaders intend to bring up the tax cuts along with legislation allowing faith-based groups to compete directly for federal grants, a provision that has drawn fire from liberals, who see it as an encroachment on the separation of church and state, and Christian conservatives, who see it as means of legitimizing what they regard as fringe religious organizations.

The tax cuts have attracted bipartisan support but virtually all House Democrats oppose allowing faith-based groups to compete directly for federal grants. Only Rep. Tony Hall, D-Ohio, has vigorously supported the idea. Proponents say the White House should prepare for a tough fight.

"Some people are talking about schedule and we should be talking about how to get Democratic votes," said a senior GOP House aide.

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