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Business Leaders Gear Up Lobbying and Ad Campaign for 'Fast Track' Bill

By Terry M. Neal
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 19, 1997; Page A04

To counter a fierce lobbying effort by organized labor, business leaders are planning to spend at least $2 million on an air and land war to persuade Congress to broaden President Clinton's trade negotiating powers.

But even as the advertising campaign began yesterday, coalition members acknowledged they were playing catch-up to the union forces that vehemently oppose the measure. Some members of Congress who support "fast-track" authority for the president expressed concern yesterday that the business lobby had fallen dangerously behind the curve on an issue that could be decided by a handful of votes.

"Most of the members are saying they haven't heard anything from business," said Rep. Robert T. Matsui (D-Calif.), a fast-track supporter and ranking member of the Ways and Means Committee, where the bill has been assigned for markup. "Then you wonder: How much does the business community want fast track? How important is it to them?"

Fast track empowers the president to negotiate international trade agreements that Congress cannot amend, only vote up or down. The battle is largely between organized labor on one side and Clinton and big business on the other.

America Leads on Trade, a coalition formed to lobby for the authority, insists the issue is a top priority for business. The group plans a television campaign in about 30 targeted markets across the country as well as a grass-roots effort.

At a news conference Wednesday, James T. Christie, chairman of the 543-member coalition, refused to divulge how much it is spending and which congressional districts it is targeting. But yesterday a coalition official revealed the $2 million figure and said more resources would be readily available if necessary.

"The philosophy of America Leads on Trade is, we're going to match dollar for dollar what the opposition spends," said the official, who requested anonymity. "We are keeping close tabs on the opposition and are monitoring what they do. And we are flexible to respond to their advertising buys."

On Tuesday, AFL-CIO President John J. Sweeney announced a multimillion-dollar television and radio campaign, initially aimed at 13 congressional districts and the entire state of California. The targeted members are undecided on the issue, and most won their seats by small margins and come from areas with a strong labor presence. The ads provide a toll-free number for constituents to call their lawmakers.

AFL-CIO officials said the media campaign would cost $1 million in the first week alone. Legislative director Peggy Taylor said: "The dollar for dollar doesn't matter. We have the ability to mobilize tens of thousands of working families in states and congressional districts all over the country."

Unlike big business, organized labor has been active for months, personally lobbying members and coordinating grass-roots efforts in members' districts. The business lobby has been particularly deficient in making personal contacts on Capitol Hill, sources there said.

"They need to get out of their offices downtown, go to the Hill and wear down some shoe leather," said a Democratic staff member who specializes in trade issues.

Johanna Schneider, a spokeswoman for the Business Roundtable, said there is a good explanation: Business leaders decided to hold off intense lobbying until they could see Clinton's bill. That bill was released Tuesday after several delays.

She noted that the Roundtable – a key member of America Leads on Trade – sent two dozen CEOs of large companies to lobby on the Hill earlier this month.

Thomas J. Donohue, president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, acknowledged that labor is riding high from the successful strike against UPS, but vowed that big business will not be a patsy.

"These guys [labor] play political hardball, and they have staked their political reputation on it [fast track]," Donohue said. "So you are going to get one hell of a fight here."

The America Leads on Trade source said the television campaign is targeted at 103 congressional districts – 35 Democrats and 68 Republicans. Television ads started running in the D.C. area yesterday. They will begin today in markets including Seattle, Denver, Phoenix, Dallas, Los Angeles, Tampa and Jackson, Miss.

Forty-eight other Democrats have been targeted for grass-roots lobbying. Business officials, elected leaders and others from their districts will be calling members to urge support for fast track.

Some members of Congress have been caught in the cross-fire. Among those with opposing television ads running in their districts: Reps. David E. Skaggs (D-Colo.), Phil English (R-Pa.) and Thomas C. Sawyer (D-Ohio).

Skaggs said his office had received 57 phone calls from both sides on the issue in the last two days. He said he will announce his position today at a news conference in his district.

"I don't know that this is the heaviest lobbying I've seen in my 11 years here," Skaggs said. "But I think it would be fair to say this is the heaviest full-court press this year."

Staff writer Steven Pearlstein contributed to this report.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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