WAY BACK when it was young, the Clinton administration championed NAFTA and the World Trade Organization. Now that it has moved on, it has lost fast-track trade-negotiating authority and scarcely tried to win it back; it is approaching a trade summit in Seattle apparently unsure whether to lead the charge against protectionism or play defense. The only glimmer of trade liberalization comes from two regional tariff-cutting bills in Congress, one for Africa and one for the Caribbean.
The Africa bill passed the House with a wide bipartisan majority in July. The Caribbean one, by contrast, does not command a House majority. Some complain that it would cost too many clothing and textile jobs at home, refusing to accept that trade endangers jobs in uncompetitive industries but can create more and better jobs in competitive ones. Other members of the House object that the Caribbean bill fails to impose labor standards on Caribbean nations, but denying Caribbean workers access to the American market is an odd way to help them.
The Senate, meanwhile, is less polarized on trade and so a more hopeful source of progress. It has wrapped the African and Caribbean measures into one bill, which is now scheduled for a vote tomorrow. But a procedural fight derailed the vote. The Democrats wanted to attach a minimum-wage hike, a patients' bill of rights and Medicare drug coverage to the trade bill; the Republicans balked at these Christmas-tree tactics. With some justification, the Republicans then reversed the rhetoric surrounding the test-ban treaty, accusing the Democrats of isolationism.
The Senate Republicans should let the Democrats have their vote on their issues; the Democrats should stop sabotaging the trade bill. Both the African and Caribbean measures are fairly modest: They allow poor workers abroad a chance to compete fairly for the patronage of American consumers. After five years of defeat and stagnation in Congress, the cause of trade could use a victory.