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House Leaders See Trade as a Key Issue

By Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 20, 1998; Page A10

Georgia Republican John Linder betrayed what looked suspiciously like a sly smile when asked whether the House will vote on the controversial "fast track" trade law before it adjourns this fall.

"It will be on the floor," Linder said of the legislation, which would give the president the freedom to negotiate trade agreements and then present them to Congress for an up-or-down vote. "I want to see Leonard Boswell decide whether to go with the union money or his constituents."

Boswell, a Democrat from Iowa, is one of the Republicans' top targets in the November elections. He declined to endorse the bill last year because he was holding out for a provision requiring the president to certify that U.S. trading partners had adequate child labor laws and enforcement. The difficult choice Boswell would face if forced to vote on fast track is exactly what the GOP is seeking this year.

Trade remains a divisive issue for both parties, though Republicans are betting that they have more to gain than lose from putting it once again on the national stage shortly before the election. The fact that President Clinton, who lobbied hard but failed to win fast track last fall, is decidedly skittish on bringing it out for a vote demonstrates how dramatically politics can shift during an election year. The measure was pulled at the last moment in November when House leaders and White House officials recognized that they lacked the votes to pass it.

"Republicans are looking for an opportunity to draw distinctions between them and President Clinton," explained Jack Pitney, an associate professor of government at Claremont McKenna College. "President Clinton's lack of enthusiasm presents them with an opportunity."

The vote will also offer Republicans a chance to make amends with the business and farm communities, both of which have questioned the GOP's commitment to them in recent months. In a speech before the U.S. Chamber of Commerce last week, House Majority Leader Richard K. Armey (R-Tex.) specifically addressed the issue and vowed that, while the House had passed socially conservative measures over the opposition of business groups recently, GOP leaders would work to bolster exports in the near future.

"I understand I've been a source of some discomfort for you recently. I'm sorry for that," he acknowledged. "Many of you have been afraid it has been a change in direction by this Republican majority."

Armey promised to bring three items to the floor for a vote before Congress leaves: fast track, funding for the International Monetary Fund and most-favored-nation (MFN) trading status for China.

"I will make no law, nor will I participate in the making of any law that endangers the commerce between this people and the peoples of other nations," Armey promised. "You have my solemn commitment that I see that as a governing principle."

Both the business and farm communities have been clamoring for fast track and other export-oriented measures. After months of opposition, GOP leaders have agreed to provide money for the IMF and are backing normal trade relations with China despite their criticism of Clinton's policies toward that nation.

Pitney, the professor, observed that while the general public may not be aware of the stalled bill, powerful interest groups would be judging candidates on its progress. "What's at stake here is not so much huge numbers of votes, but political support and campaign contributions," he said.

"It's really an issue for the business community and an issue for our farmers," Linder said of fast track. "We have to give them a vote."

In addition to making progress on the IMF and MFN legislation, Congress is about to take up a cluster of smaller trade measures. On Tuesday, the Senate Finance Committee will vote on legislation that includes a slew of initiatives lowering tariffs for regions such as Africa and the Caribbean Basin, as well as on imports such as wool. Sen. William V. Roth Jr. (R-Del.), the panel's chairman, announced Friday that he has attached the Senate version of fast track to the legislation.

Democrats, however, have begun to question this strategy. Rep. Jim McDermott (D-Wash.), the original sponsor of the bill now pending in Roth's committee, said loading up the legislation could ultimately force Democrats to reject the final product.

"You can load a camel up and if you load it up too much, it will not move," McDermott warned, adding that Democrats in favor of aiding Africa might balk at the prospect of supporting fast track. "It would be a tragedy to wait another year, but it wouldn't be our fault. We're not in the majority."

Most Democrats insist they are unconcerned about the Republicans' fast track strategy. They argue that members' positions have been on the record since the debate last fall and that little has changed to shift lawmakers' votes.

"They bring this up knowing it's going to fail," said Laura Nichols, spokeswoman for Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.). "It's not as if it's adding a new issue to the political landscape. Add this to the list of issues they are using to either raise money or get out their base."

While Republicans hope scheduling the legislation will consume the time and energy of labor groups, union officials said they do not plan to lobby aggressively against the bill.

"Most of our energy right now is going into health care reform and Social Security," said Peggy Taylor, director of legislation for the AFL-CIO. "I don't see a real campaign."

Even some Democratic supporters of the legislation, however, said they feared a fast track vote could hurt their party's chances of recapturing the House. Rep. Robert T. Matsui (D-Calif.), who was responsible for gathering Democratic support for the bill last fall, said he could not envision enough of his colleagues joining with Republicans to pass the measure.

"From the Republican point of view, this is a good political issue for them now," Matsui said. "It's a bad political issue for the Democrats."

Rep. Timothy J. Roemer (Ind.), a centrist Democrat who favors free trade agreements along with strict enforcement measures and job training programs for U.S. workers, said the current tensions over fast track highlight the controversial nature of any major trade bill.

"Trade issues in the 1990s have replaced the social issues of guns and abortion as some of the most volatile and divisive issues you can vote on for both parties," Roemer said. "We are forced in Congress to create a common-sense middle to promote fair and free trade. It's a very difficult endeavor."

On the other hand, Clinton's unwillingness to enter the fast track debate now shows how ties have improved between him and House Democrats over the past year. Many Democratic lawmakers complained bitterly in November when he joined forces with House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) on fast track; this month, Clinton told reporters that he was not interested in pushing for a vote. Just last week, his chief of staff, Erskine B. Bowles, indicated that it was not a top priority for the White House.

While Linder and other House leaders remain confident that fast track can be a winning issue for them, other Republicans have their doubts. One senior Republican member said he plans to advise the leadership against bringing the measure up for a vote again. He noted that most of the lawmakers who would be subjected to political pressure come from swing districts that are more open to takeovers.

"It makes no sense for both parties," the lawmaker said. "It will reinforce the base of the Republicans and of the Democrats, and put in jeopardy all those marginal districts that are in play."

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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