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GOP 'fast-track' trade bill dies slow death

WASHINGTON (AllPolitics, September 25) -- The House rejected a Republican-led attempt Friday to enhance the president's ability to negotiate trade treaties, as what once was a top priority of President Bill Clinton became fatally entangled in campaign- season politics.

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The effort to give Clinton so-called fast-track negotiating powers was defeated 243-180, killed until at least next year. Its demise came as no surprise to lobbyists and vote counters from both sides, who realized days ago that the proposal was doomed.

Republicans said they wanted one last crack during this Congress at helping to expand U.S. trade opportunities, especially as U.S. farm prices are plummeting and economies are stumbling abroad. With Election Day barely five weeks away, they didn't hesitate to point at the "fast track's" Democratic foes.

"If this goes down and we end up in a steep, worldwide depression, some of us will have the comfort of knowing we cast the right vote," House Speaker Newt Gingrich said shortly before the vote.

Clinton's embrace of the expanded authority marked him as a centrist compared to traditional, protectionist-minded Democrats.

Clinton withdrew support due to elections

But the White House objected when Republicans scheduled the vote close to congressional elections, arguing that the Republicans were forcing some Democrats in closely contested districts to risk angering hometown union members, farmers, environmentalists and business interests.

So this time, the administration withheld its support, turning the issue into a testy partisan fracas.


"This isn't about more power for the president. It's about more votes for Newt Gingrich, and that's the last thing America needs," said Rep. Lloyd Doggett, a Texas Democrat.

Some suggested that Clinton's reversal was a sign that a weakened president was meekly following the dictates of his party's labor supporters.

"It is sad that his strength in the past of resisting the pressures of organized labor have not come into play today," said House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Bill Archer.

Democrats in difficult position

Republican political leaders acknowledged that Democrats whose districts have large numbers of farm, business or labor voters might find themselves in a difficult position.

"If they want to vote against their own constituents, that's OK with me," said Rep. John Linder, chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee.

Some Democrats, including Rep. Norm Dicks of Washington, said they might vote "present," a neutral vote. Dicks' northwest Washington district, containing large numbers of union members, is the home of corporations including Boeing and Weyerhaeuser.

Partisan politics blamed

"This is being brought up for partisan political reasons, and it's not a serious attempt to pass it," Dicks said.

Many Republicans also saw the vote as a chance to demonstrate support for business allies, who were upset that Republicans blocked money for the International Monetary Fund, which helps stabilize foreign economies.

Even so, the vote was a tough one for some Republicans, especially Northeasterners whose districts contain significant numbers of union members.

Under fast-track authority, the Senate would not be able to amend trade treaties when considering their ratification.

Proponents argue that without the expedited process, other countries would be reluctant to negotiate treaties with the administration because the agreements might change. Foes said the authority would endanger U.S. jobs and adversely affect the world's environment.

Since President Ford received the fast-track negotiating power in 1974, every president had it until it expired in 1994. Lack of the authority has hindered U.S. attempts to forge new free-trade agreements, including one sought with Chile.

Last fall, Clinton and Gingrich joined forces in an effort to push the authority through the House. They decided against holding a vote at the eleventh hour, worrying that it would be defeated.

But this year, the dynamic was completely different. Unlike last time, lawmakers did not seek to barter votes for home- district projects, and leaders made few changes in the fast-track process as part of a hunt for support.

Although some business and union lobbyists sought last-minute support at the Capitol, they were less numerous and frenetic than last fall, reflecting the consensus that the proposal's fate was sealed.

The Senate has not yet voted on fast-track authority but would probably approve it if it did.


Friday, September 25, 1998

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