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President Seeks Power to Negotiate More Trade Pacts

By Paul Blustein and John E. Yang
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, September 17 1997; Page A01

President Clinton defied organized labor and liberals within his own party yesterday as he formally asked Congress for authority to negotiate new trade accords, including an expansion of the North American Free Trade Agreement.

Firmly staking his position on the side of free trade, the president rejected labor's demands that he insist on extensive protections for worker rights and the environment in future trade deals. Instead, Clinton's draft legislation offered carefully crafted language on the issue, designed to appeal to moderates in both parties and maximize the chances of striking new deals with other countries.

Appearing before House Democrats at the Capitol, where he traveled with Vice President Gore to appeal for support, the president argued that his approach was vital to the nation's continued prosperity, given the economy's increasing reliance on exports for growth.

"It will enable the United States to sell to the world's fast-growing markets – regions where our competitors will step in if we retreat," he told reporters before meeting the Democratic lawmakers.

The administration's proposal drew cautious praise from GOP congressional leaders and business lobbyists, who warned that the president would have to fight hard and accept some modifications to win passage.

"It's the right approach – we're on the right track," said Rep. Jim Kolbe (R-Ariz.), a leading GOP voice on trade issues. "But the president has to really get behind this."

Congressional liberals, however, blasted the proposal and the AFL-CIO announced an all-out campaign against it, reflecting the fissures within the Democratic Party that the administration's trade initiative is threatening to deepen.

House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) called the proposal "unacceptable," asserting that "it sends the wrong signal to the world community about what our priorities and standards in trade should be."

The president, whose authority to negotiate new trade pacts expired three years ago, has hesitated in pressing forward until now mainly because of the political passions the issue arouses. One major cause of the administration's skittishness is the widespread unpopularity of NAFTA, which some critics blame for the movement of low-skill jobs to low-wage countries.

But now, Clinton needs the negotiating authority to fulfill a promise he and other Latin American leaders made at a 1994 summit meeting to create a Free Trade Area of the Americas by 2005, essentially extending NAFTA to all of the Western Hemisphere. The administration also wants to negotiate new global accords to lower barriers to trade in services and agricultural products.

To do so, the White House asked Capitol Hill to provide so-called fast-track authority until at least 2001, which would enable the president to negotiate trade accords without fear that Congress would unravel the terms. Under fast track authority, Congress agrees to take straight up-or-down votes on trade deals, without making any amendments. Clinton's proposal would allow Congress to suspend the authority in 2001 or extend it until 2005 at the president's request.

The measure faces tricky legislative arithmetic on the Hill, because the White House badly wants to win substantial support on both sides of the aisle in both houses so that it can convince foreign governments that trade deals will win ratification.

In the House, where the Democratic leadership is against him, Clinton faces the solid opposition of about 110 Democrats with strong ties to labor and environmental groups, while another 40 to 45 strongly favor his initiative, leaving about 50 or so up for grabs. On the Republican side, GOP lawmakers said, the effort to round up votes is complicated by partisan animosity, predisposing some against giving Clinton any victory, and frustration that it has taken the White House so long to come up with a proposal.

The complexity of the trade-offs that the White House must balance was underscored yesterday by the reaction of business lobbyists and Republicans, who did not sound thrilled either with the details of Clinton's proposal.

Willard Workman, vice president for international affairs at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, complained that the bill "is not entirely clean of extraneous" provisions to protect labor rights and the environment.

"This proposal needs one more spin through the wash cycle to get it clean," he said.

Partly to win moderate Democratic support, the White House included environmental protection as one of the "negotiating objectives" for future trade talks. The administration also provided assurances that it would seek on its own to negotiate accords on labor and the environment in "side agreements" to any trade pact, similar to those struck with NAFTA.

But the administration rejected the approach favored by liberals such as Gephardt, who insist that if trade with developing countries is to be fair, trade accords must include agreements – enforceable by sanctions – to raise labor and environmental standards in other countries.

Instead, the White House agreed to compromise language offered by GOP lawmakers – who originally wanted no labor or environmental provisions at all in trade agreements – providing that only labor and environmental matters "directly related to trade" would be included in trade deals.

One example of an issue that could be negotiated would be a country's ban on foreign food or agricultural products based on unscientific sanitary requirements, said Charlene Barshefsky, the U.S. trade representative.

If the administration adopted the Gephardt approach, Barshefsky said, it would not only ruin chances of winning GOP support but would almost surely doom negotiations with trading partners, who would bridle at Washington trying to dictate their labor and environmental rules.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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