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Clinton, House GOP Leaders Agree On 'Fast Track' Trade Authority

By Paul Blustein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 8, 1997; Page A08

President Clinton reached agreement yesterday with House Republican leaders on a bill that would give him new trade negotiating authority, but it was unclear yesterday how many Democrats would support the bill in a House Ways and Means Committee vote today.

The president, who wants the legislation so he can negotiate free-trade accords with countries in Latin America and elsewhere, spent considerable time yesterday at the White House cajoling Democratic members of the Ways and Means panel to support the bill.

But a majority of the panel's 16 Democrats have joined House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) and organized labor in opposing unfettered free-trade deals as bad for working-class Americans. Only two of the Democrats on the committee – Robert T. Matsui (Calif.), ranking minority member of its trade subcommittee, and John S. Tanner (Tenn.) – have firmly said they intend to vote for the bill.

Leaders of the generally pro-free-trade Republican majority, including Ways and Means Chairman Bill Archer (R-Tex.), have said the legislation needs the support of five to seven of the panel's Democrats to stand a chance of passage in the full House. Otherwise, the odds will dim of getting the 50 to 70 Democrats believed necessary for ensuring a bipartisan majority.

"We'll just plug away, and I can't make a prediction right now," Matsui said in after a meeting with eight other committee members at the White House. "The president has really worked the members. But you don't know what's going to happen until you actually get in" today's committee meeting.

One Democrat the Clinton administration was hoping to sway, Richard E. Neal (Mass.), said that although "the president did a pretty good job of laying out the debate," he would vote against the bill because of the large number of manufacturing jobs his district has lost in recent years.

A defeat in Ways and Means – or even a poor showing – would doom one of Clinton's top priorities for this year and would embarrass the president on the eve of his trip to South America that he is scheduled to begin Sunday.

Clinton wants to be able to show Latin leaders that Congress will soon grant him "fast-track" authority, because without it he would have difficulty making good on his promise to negotiate a Free Trade Area of the Americas that would essentially extend the North American Free Trade Agreement beyond Canada and Mexico to the rest of the Western Hemisphere. Under fast-track procedures, trade deals would be subject to yes-or-no votes in Congress with no amendments allowed, a procedure that assures foreign governments their agreements with the administration won't be rewritten on Capitol Hill.

The compromise bill, which was finished at 2 a.m. yesterday and approved a few hours later by Archer and U.S. Trade Representative Charlene Barshefsky, includes language designed to appeal to pro-free-trade moderate Democrats without alienating conservative Republicans. Its goals closely track those of a bill that the Senate Finance Committee approved last week, although it uses different wording and legal formulations.

The most contentious issue revolves around the president's ability and obligation to negotiate trade accords that include provisions concerning worker rights and environmental standards in foreign countries. To gain Democratic support, the bill would allow trade deals that prohibit foreign governments from lowering their labor, health and environmental rules simply to gain a competitive advantage in global trade.

That provision doesn't go nearly far enough to satisfy pro-labor Democrats such as Gephardt, who insist on much stronger labor and environmental protections. But it represents a concession by GOP free-traders, who fear that new protectionist pressures could arise if access to the U.S. market becomes contingent on a country's labor and environmental standards.

The committee's ranking minority member, Rep. Charles B. Rangel (D-N.Y.), who met with Clinton privately and later joined the other Democratic members at the group meeting, said: "It was difficult to know whether the president gained anything at all. But it was an exciting meeting, and the president said he thought he deserved support on this in order to be able to deal with trade as any other head of a nation would."

Although some congressional sources said that Rangel has been working behind the scenes against fast-track authority, he refused to say publicly whether he will vote for the bill. He said there has been talk among committee members of holding a voice vote, in which their decisions would go officially unrecorded, "but I don't think that's going to happen."

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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