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House squeezes out a trade victory for Bush

By Kate Snow
CNN Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Three Republican House members held back their votes on giving President Bush the authority to negotiate trade agreements until the last minute on Thursday, waiting to see if he needed support. He did.

In the end, those three votes -- from Republican representatives Cass Ballenger of North Carolina, Dana Rohrabacher of California and Cliff Stearns of Florida -- were essential to passage of a trade measure that Congress would not be able to amend.

"During this time of crisis, to have the president appear weak is not a good thing," Rohrabacher said. "In principle, I don't believe in giving legislative authority to the executive branch. But giving up a little legislative authority to the executive branch was better than seeing the president's prestige diminished at a time like this."

Rohrabacher said he was emotionally exhausted by the vote and the pressure. "I'm not joyful tonight. I backed the president because it was the right thing to do."

But he was not alone. As the clocked ticked down to end the voting period, opponents of the measure appeared to have the edge. But Republicans, who control the House, kept the vote open for more than a half hour as leaders paced the room shopping for votes.

There were rumors of deals being made -- promises of support on other issues or funding for pet projects back home.

Rohrabacher said he was told he could ask for anything and he'd probably get it, but he never asked.

Stearns said he didn't ask for anything in particular either. He had already told Bush earlier in the week that if it looked like the bill was going down, he would give him his support, even though it might not sit well with citrus growers in his Florida district.

"I don't get anything other than the feeling that I was able to help the president of the United States in a very critical time," Stearns said.

Stearns said he did plan to call the president later to remind him that he'd made good on his promise -- a favor that could come back to him down the road.

Ballenger was concerned about the textile industry in his native North Carolina, but in the end he too was persuaded to back the president.

"He's my president," Ballenger said. "I didn't get any roads. I didn't get any bridges. I didn't get my shoes shined."

Democrats were visibly upset when the vote became 215-214 and in an instant, the gavel fell.

"It's hard to win a game when the deck is stacked against you," said one Democratic aide of the Republicans' strategy.

At a news conference shortly after the vote, House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Bill Thomas, R-California, openly cried. "I want to thank all my colleagues who supplied the votes to make this happen," he said.

As he struggled through tears he said, "You don't know how hard their staffs and we worked. We did what people said couldn't be done and that has set aside the phony differences, the words and put together a product, that I am so proud of them."


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