SO OFTEN accused of inflexibility, the Bush administration made a big stretch to strike a deal with congressional Democrats on trade this week. The Democrats walked away with an achievement they and their labor union allies have been seeking for at least 15 years: direct incorporation of enforceable labor and environmental rules into free-trade agreements signed by the United States. Future accords will contain United Nations labor principles governing such issues as unions' right to organize and the prohibition of forced labor. The administration also agreed to loosen patent protections on drugs and to guarantee that foreign companies could be blocked from operating U.S. ports.
All this might be worthwhile if administration trade negotiators obtained what they initially were seeking from the Democrats -- the votes to pass four pending bilateral free-trade accords and the extension of President Bush's trade negotiating authority, without which there will be no chance of completing the multilateral trade negotiations known as the Doha round. So far, they look to be well short of that. The Democrats are talking favorably about the passage of only the two smallest trade deals, with Peru and Panama, whose combined trade with the United States in 2005 amounted to less than $10 billion. They are still withholding support for the most important pacts, in political and economic terms: with Colombia, a staunch ally of the United States and a regional rival of Venezuela that has become a target for the left; and with South Korea, the only one of the four whose exports amount to more than a rounding error in U.S. accounts.
As for Doha -- the only accord that would truly advance the cause of free trade, and help the U.S. and global economies -- the Democrats promise only to think about it. "It depends on how we work all that out," said Max Baucus (D-Mont.), chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, at a news conference Thursday. That's a way of saying that still more administration concessions will be needed if there is to be any hope of extending the trade negotiating authority before its expiration at the end of June.
The administration's trade representative, Susan C. Schwab, is an optimist: She's convinced that this week's deal has established a foundation for bipartisan collaboration on trade that will carry over into discussions on Colombia, South Korea and Doha. Certainly it's refreshing to see anyone in the Bush administration make such a great effort to find common ground with congressional Democrats. We hope the reward for her initiative will be more than $10 billion in additional free trade.