House Defeats Fast-Track Trade Authority
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 26, 1998; Page A10
p David E. Bonior (D-Mich.), who helped lead the effort to block the bill last year and picked up even more votes from his Democratic colleagues this time, contends the Republican tactics might help his party by energizing Democratic voters.
"They see the partisan ploy here the GOP has cooked up to cater to the business community," Bonior said. "This has ginned up our own base."
Only 29 Democrats voted for the legislation, while 171 voted no and three others voted present. On the Republican side, 151 members voted for it and 71 voted against it, while one independent also opposed it.
Republicans charged that the White House and Democratic leaders were willing to sacrifice public policy goals in order to keep their political coalition unified.
"They would not like to do a tough vote because there's an election," said National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman John Linder (R-Ga.). "We think it's an important vote for the economy."
At stake was a bill that would have renewed the president's power to negotiate trade pacts without worrying about Congress amending them -- an authority every president has enjoyed since Gerald R. Ford. Last fall, Clinton joined forces with House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) and his lieutenants to try to pass fast track, after the bill cleared the Senate.
But facing an embarrassing defeat, Clinton and Gingrich agreed to postpone the vote in early November. While a majority of Republicans were on board, the issue bitterly divided House Democrats, making it impossible to amass the 218 votes needed for passage. A small group of moderate, pro-business, free-trade Democrats ardently backed the measure, but it was opposed by a larger, more liberal group closely allied with organized labor. The unions feared job losses from an influx of less expensive foreign-made goods and a move of manufacturing facilities from the United States to low-wage nations.
Though Clinton said early this year he hoped Congress would pass fast track, he later changed course and said such a vote would prove too divisive in an election year. AFL-CIO President John Sweeney in a letter circulated on Capitol Hill this week accused Republican leaders of scheduling the vote "for the primary purpose of creating political chaos so close to the midterm elections."
Free-trade advocates voiced disappointment over yesterday's outcome, saying lawmakers had sacrificed a chance to create new markets for American exports at a time when instability in Asia and elsewhere is hurting U.S. business. Bruce Josten, vice president of government affairs for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, noted that in July exports hit their lowest mark in 17 months.
"We've got other countries openly laughing at this country, at our inability to open markets," Josten said. "There's just an insanity to this debate this year."
With the election nearing, GOP leaders are determined to hold Democrats accountable for blocking fast track's passage. "We'll certainly make it known to their constituents," said House Republican Conference Vice Chairman Jennifer Dunn (Wash.).
Most of the senior Democrats who chose to change their position and oppose the bill are from safe districts, and they encouraged more junior colleagues to vote for the measure and defuse possible Republican attacks. Rep. Robert T. Matsui (D-Calif.), the ranking member on the Ways and Means trade subcommittee, led last year's campaign to pass fast track but insisted that pro-trade Democrats won't work with Republicans to damage their own vulnerable members.
"This group [of Democrats] had always tried to treat trade in a bipartisan fashion," Matsui said. "We see that breaking down now. We want them to vote for what's in their best interests, substantively and politically."
In an odd political twist, Clinton campaigned yesterday in Chicago for Democratic Rep. Glenn Poshard, who skipped his own fund-raiser and hurried to Washington -- to vote against the fast track legislation.
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