How Trade Breakthrough Almost Broke Down in Congress

By Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 22, 2007

Just weeks ago, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) hailed the 285 to 132 vote in favor of the Peru Free Trade Agreement, which she had helped shepherd through the chamber, as a moment steeped in Democratic tradition.

"Today, the House built upon President John F. Kennedy's legacy of free trade by passing an agreement that promotes both free and fair trade," she said. She added that the pact "represents a remarkable breakthrough, because Democrats were able to secure enforceable, basic labor rights and environmental standards in the core text of a free trade agreement."

On one level, Pelosi was right: 109 Democrats voted for the bill, along with 176 Republicans, and it marked one of the biggest trade breakthroughs in decades. But the fact that more significant trade agreements, like the one with Colombia, will probably not make it to the floor in this Congress highlights the harsher side of the politics of globalization.

Things seemed destined to be easier on Jan. 18, when newly anointed House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Charles B. Rangel (D-N.Y.) welcomed two Republicans into his Capitol office: Rep. Jim McCrery (La.), the panel's ranking minority member, and U.S. Trade Representative Susan C. Schwab.

The three spoke about the prospects for a congressional deal on trade, something the administration desperately wanted. Passing trade pacts in the House has been difficult for decades, regardless of who was in power. In 1993, President Bill Clinton spent a big chunk of his political capital to push through the North American Free Trade Agreement by a vote of 234 to 200 in the House, and the political climate has worsened over time. During the 109th Congress, House GOP leaders managed to pass the Central American Free Trade Agreement 217 to 215. While 102 Democrats had backed NAFTA, just 15 voted for CAFTA.

"We don't have people walking out of Wal-Mart saying, 'Thank God for trade with China,' " Rangel said, adding that opponents of free trade on CNN and elsewhere have effectively linked recent U.S. job losses to trade pacts. "It's the Lou Dobbs thing: 'It's all due to trade.' "

The trade representative launched into a defense of the benefits associated with lower tariffs and greater economic engagement overseas. But McCrery broke in.

"There's no question the general level of support for trade in the country has gone down," said the congressman, known for his impeccable Southern manners and mastery of arcane tax and trade law. "It doesn't matter if it's gone down based on reality or perception. We need to allow our members, Republican and Democrat, to vote on something that will renew the faith of people who used to have faith in trade and now are having doubts."

That blunt message, delivered in an office that Republicans had just vacated weeks before, was a vivid sign of how much things had changed with the Democratic majority. If the Bush administration wanted approval for new accords with Peru, Panama and other nations, it had to change the way it operated.

On Feb. 6, Schwab met with AFL-CIO President John J. Sweeney in her office, the first one-on-one meeting the two had ever had. The labor leader, 73, did not seem like a natural White House ally at the time: His 10-million member organization had spent $40 million and mobilized more than 200,000 volunteers to defeat GOP congressional candidates in 2006, and the AFL-CIO had fought CAFTA and every other trade pact the Bush administration had ever devised.

The meeting was not a stunning success: To Sweeney, the session confirmed the fact that the administration was still reluctant to put language guaranteeing labor and environmental standards into its core trade agreements with other countries.

"We assumed the policy was not changing, and we were right," Sweeney said in an interview.

CONTINUED     1           >

© 2007 The Washington Post Company