WASHINGTON — The House on Sunday moved toward a wee-hours vote on whether to give President Clinton "fast-track" authority to negotiate new trade pacts, with Republican leaders predicting the controversial measure would pass despite heavy opposition.
House members were expected to begin voting in the early morning hours today, with the possibility that balloting would remain open longer than usual to give Republican leaders more time to win over undecided lawmakers.
Despite several days of presidential arm-twisting and White House deal-making, Clinton aides reported late Sunday that they could count on only about 45 Democrats to support the bill, which is vehemently opposed by organized labor.
As a result, House Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Texas) told reporters that GOP leaders would make a last-ditch effort to persuade more Republicans to support the trade measure.
"We have the potential to get the votes on our side," DeLay said. "We're going to keep talking to our members. We think we can convince them this is too important to let go."
The developments came as, separately, Congress passed and sent to the president a bill designed to streamline the Food and Drug Administration's procedures for approving drugs and medical devices.
The measure, enacted by both houses on Sunday, would extend a system under which pharmaceutical companies are assessed fees to help pay for speeding up the approval process.
The bill also expands access to potentially life-saving experimental drugs and gives drug companies incentives to do more research on drugs for children.
In a bid to finish the 1998 budget before it adjourns, the Senate approved by voice vote a single measure combining three large appropriations, each of which had been bogged down in controversy. The combined measure contains funding for foreign aid, the District of Columbia and the departments of State, Commerce and Justice.
However, the bill includes controversial proposals on limiting funding for abortion programs conducted by international family planning organizations and other provisions that may run into trouble in the House.
Gingrich said the House could take up the funding measure, amend it after the fast-track vote and return it to the Senate.
Sunday marked the second time the House had moved toward voting on the fast-track legislation. Lawmakers initially were scheduled to vote on the bill Friday, but the balloting was postponed by the White House and GOP House leaders for lack of sufficient votes.
The measure would provide Clinton with authority to begin broad new trade talks with other countries, with a guarantee that Congress would act quickly on any new accord without trying to rewrite specific provisions.
U.S. trading partners traditionally have refused to begin broad trade talks in the absence of such authority, for fear that Congress will seek to renegotiate any new accords after they have been signed.
Although Congress has given fast-track authority to all U.S. presidents since 1974, organized labor has opposed the bill vehemently, threatening to help defeat any lawmaker who supports the measure this time around.
Labor leaders and environmentalists contend that the bill would hurt American jobs, depress wages and pollute the environment. They want Congress to require the administration to include more safeguards in trade accords.
Administration policy-makers--and most nonpartisan trade analysts--stress that the fast-track bill is not a trade accord and that it only provides authority for the president to negotiate trade pacts with other countries.
The Senate already has voted, 69 to 31, in a key test vote last week to support the bill and is expected to pass it easily once the House acts. The Senate is scheduled to complete its work on the bill today.
Earlier, Clinton dispatched senior administration officials to Capitol Hill in an effort to garner more votes, and he told a TV audience on NBC-TV's "Meet the Press" that passage was doable.
By the president's own admission, he has been "pulling out the stops" to win votes for the legislation, which has become a matter of enormous prestige to him, both domestically and internationally.
As an incentive for Democrats, he pledged to seek an extra $1.4 billion for programs to retrain American workers who have lost their jobs as a result of plant closings that resulted from foreign competition.
To win over more Republican votes, he agreed to concessions on his proposal for national school testing and on census-sampling techniques. He also promised increased protection to citrus growers and winemakers.
Those efforts were only partly successful, however. Only a handful of Democrats announced they would switch to support the bill. And many Democrats were angered at what they regard as a sellout to the GOP.
There was speculation until late Sunday evening that the administration might have to pull the fast-track bill from the floor again for lack of sufficient votes to pass it.