Familiar Concerns Greet New Trade Pact

By Peter S. Goodman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 12, 2007

A day after the Bush administration and Democratic leaders celebrated a new bipartisan consensus on trade policy that embraces labor rights, some unions criticized the agreement while suggesting they might continue to oppose trade deals.

"The enforcement of labor and environmental standards would be left to the devices of the Bush administration, which refused for more than six years to pursue its first, modest steps to rein in China's violations of our trade rules," the United Steelworkers, which represents 850,000 workers in the United States and Canada, said in a written statement. So long as the Bush administration remains in power, the union said, "we will be hard pressed to support this agreement."

Several business groups, while publicly praising the deal, privately fretted about the Bush administration's accommodations -- particularly on labor rights -- to win Democratic votes in Congress for pending trade deals with Peru and Panama.

Some manufacturing groups blasted the accord as the latest development in the ongoing loss of American jobs to low-cost factories overseas.

"This deal fails to address the fundamental flaws in U.S. trade policy that have resulted in the United States losing more than 3 million middle-class manufacturing jobs," Auggie Tantillo, executive director of the American Manufacturing Trade Action Coalition, said in a statement.

Taken as a whole, the response to the deal, the highest-profile cooperation between the two parties since the Democrats captured Congress in November, underscored how trade is likely to remain a volatile and divisive issue heading into next year's presidential election.

Analysts emphasized that the deal, announced on Thursday and backed by Democratic leaders of Congress and influential figures within the Bush administration, reflected the birth of a bipartisan consensus on trade policy. The deal is meant to smooth the way for congressional passage of the trade deals with Peru and Panama and to elevate prospects for more controversial pacts with Colombia and South Korea.

The agreement was reached after six months of negotiations between the Bush administration, led by U.S. Trade Representative Susan C. Schwab, and Rep. Charles B. Rangel (D-N.Y.), the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee. The announcement in the Capitol was attended by Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson Jr. and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.)

"In both parties, there will be people who will be unhappy," said Jeffrey J. Schott, a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington. "But if this agreement can lead to a strong minority of Democrats joining with a strong majority of Republicans, then you have bipartisan support for trade deals going forward."

The deal drew some labor backing yesterday. John Sweeney, president of the AFL-CIO, the nation's largest confederation of labor unions and a frequent foe of trade deals, praised Rangel for "the substantial progress made in improving workers' rights and environmental standards in the Peru and Panama Free Trade Agreements."

But Sweeney added that his union would "vigorously oppose" deals with Colombia and South Korea, as well as an extension of the president's so-called fast-track authority -- the right to negotiate trade pacts and submit them to Congress for a simple majority vote. President Bush's authority expires at the end of next month.

The key to the deal reached this week was the Bush administration's willingness to relent on a long-standing Democratic demand: an enforceable provision requiring that U.S. overseas trading partners ban child and forced labor, and protect the rights of workers to join unions and bargain collectively.

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