House OKs 'fast track' trade bill by one vote
By Manuel Perez-Rivas
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- By a margin of one vote, the House of Representatives passed a trade bill Thursday that would give the president authority to negotiate trade agreements with no advice from Congress.
The "fast track," or trade promotion authority, legislation passed 215-214 after an intense, last-minute push for votes by Republican leaders.
The bill would grant President Bush the authority to unilaterally make trade pacts. Congress would retain the power to approve or reject the deals, but not to amend them.
The measure has been a top priority of the Bush administration over the past year. Its defeat would have dealt a blow to the president's agenda.
The narrow margin followed a strong appeal for votes on the floor by House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Illinois, who called it a "defining vote" for Congress during wartime and a key measure of support for the president at such a critical time.
"This Congress will either support our president, who's fighting a courageous war on terrorism and redefining American world leadership, or it will undercut the president at the worst possible time," Hastert said.
Responding to concerns by Democrats about giving the president too much authority, Hastert said, "If we don't like those deals we can still reject them. But if we vote down this legislation, we send a terrible signal to the rest of the world."
Democrats strongly opposed the measure, and the vote broke down largely along partisan lines.
Many opponents expressed concern about the effects some trade deals could have on U.S. industries such as steel and textiles and that environmental and labor standards might be ignored during trade negotiations.
"For the American people, fast track will be a bullet train to the unemployment line," said Minority Whip David Bonior, D-Michigan.
A similar bill failed to win approval in the GOP-controlled House in 1998 during the Clinton presidency. Before Clinton, presidents enjoyed the power to negotiate trade pacts on their own, but it expired in 1994.
On Wednesday, with a tight vote looming, Republicans sought to win over some Democrats by promising to boost benefits to unemployed workers.
Democrats reacted coolly to the offer because most of the funds would be added to an economic stimulus bill still being negotiated and not guaranteed of coming to a vote soon.
"It's kind of an insult that they would come forward with these proposals to help unemployed workers at the last minute, and without any way to really pass these benefits," House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt, D-Missouri, told reporters Thursday morning. "They should have done it eight or nine weeks ago."
Republicans argued the bill would help create U.S. jobs by stimulating trade and removing barriers to American goods.
"We as a Congress need to give this authority to the president so that he can pry open new markets for U.S. workers, producers, farmers and businesses," said Rep. David Dreier, R-California.
The measure now heads for the Democrat-controlled Senate.
Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-South Dakota, has said he does not expect to bring the bill up for a vote until the Senate concludes other pressing business and probably not until next year.
After Thursday's vote, Bush issued a statement commending the House for passing legislation "that will restore our nation's authority to negotiate trade agreements.
"Trade promotion authority will give me the flexibility I need to secure the greatest possible trade opportunities for America's farmers, workers, families, and consumers.
"Now that the House has acted," the statement said, "I urge the Senate to move quickly to send me a trade promotion authority bill I can sign."
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