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'Fast Track' Passes First Test in Senate

By Helen Dewar
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 5, 1997; Page A01

President Clinton's proposal for expanded trade negotiating powers cleared a critical first hurdle in the Senate yesterday, creating at least some momentum for the administration's come-from-behind push for passage by the House later this week.

The margin of victory was larger than most senators expected: 69 to 31, or nine more than the 60 needed to limit delaying tactics and force approval of the "fast track" trade measure before Congress adjourns for the year later this month.

Even before the Senate voted, House Majority Leader Richard K. Armey (R-Tex.) said the bill's prospects were improving among members of both parties in the House, where nose counts have consistently showed Clinton falling far short of the votes needed for passage, especially within his own party.

"That was really an outstanding vote," Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) said. "It shows very clearly that the Senate believes this is in the best interest of the country."

Minutes after the Senate vote, Clinton rushed to the Rose Garden to hail the result. "Today's vote shows that a bipartisan coalition for American leadership, which has sustained us throughout this century, can help us meet the challenges of the next century," Clinton said. "An America-last strategy is unacceptable. We have a unique obligation to lead."

Clinton called on the House to follow suit, stressing his solidarity with the aims of liberal critics who are fighting the legislation. "Of course we should seek to raise labor and environmental standards in developing countries, and to stop abuses like child labor," he said. "But this legislation will give us more leverage in pressing those goals."

Most of the Senate opposition to the bill came from Democrats, largely from industrial and farm states, who complained that it would lead to loss of American jobs to countries with weaker labor and environmental protections. But a majority of Democrats (26) as well as 43 Republicans voted to move ahead with the legislation, including Virginia's senators. Maryland's senators voted against the motion.

The bill would empower Clinton to negotiate trade agreements that Congress could only accept or reject, not amend. Every president since Gerald R. Ford has had this power, and administration officials argue that foreign governments are reluctant to make trade pacts that can be rewritten by Congress.

The vote does not necessarily presage quick approval of the bill, however. Opponents have a multitude of delaying options at their disposal and indicated they will use most if not all of them. Senate Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.) said it could take until early next week to pass the bill.

Sen. Byron L. Dorgan (D-N.D.), a leader of the anti-fast-track forces, said he hopes to force consideration of a half-dozen or more amendments and to keep the Senate from voting before the House acts on Friday. By contrast, Lott said he wants the Senate to vote by Friday in order to bolster the bill's chances in the House.

Yesterday's vote came a day after Clinton offered a long list of concessions on labor and environment protections to woo wavering Democrats. While they changed few if any votes, they "increased the comfort level" among Democrats who feared criticism at home for supporting the bill, several senators said.

In the House, Armey said that, even though prospects for the bill are "improving on both sides" of the aisle, the outcome looks close. "These are the things that sometimes . . . you don't know . . . until you watch the vote," he told reporters. Minority Whip David E. Bonior (D-Mich.), who opposes the bill, did not see much movement, saying he thinks at least 80 percent of House Democrats would vote against it.

House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) suggested that GOP votes for fast track may depend on whether Republican leaders can reach agreement with Clinton on issues now bogging down spending bills, including methodology for the 2000 census and national educational testing. "It's all one week, it's all one legislative process, it's legitimate," Gingrich said of a potential broad compromise.

Also, Gingrich faxed memos to Republican governors of Tennessee, Texas, Iowa, Virginia and Wisconsin, urging them to lobby their House delegations, both Republican and Democratic.

Republicans appear to be preparing to blame Clinton and organized labor should the effort fail. A Gingrich aide sought to portray the vote as being on the question of whether House Democrats trust the president. Some Republicans also said they had trouble voting to boost a president they have battled so hard. "You can't impeach him on Monday and want to give him more authority on Tuesday," Rep. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) told a group of Washington Post reporters and editors.

A group of corporate chief executives plans to lobby lawmakers today in an effort to counter labor's efforts against the bill, and Clinton continued to meet with lawmakers at the White House and telephone others.

Staff writers Peter Baker, Richard Tapscott and John E. Yang contributed to this report.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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