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Fast-Track Trade Bill Gets Tepid Reception

September 17, 1997|ART PINE and JANET HOOK | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WASHINGTON — President Clinton sent his long-awaited fast-track trade bill to Congress on Tuesday, but it received a lukewarm reception that suggests that the White House faces an uphill battle to secure House and Senate approval.

The legislation is designed to open the way for a broad array of trade negotiations, including expansion of the controversial North American Free Trade Agreement to Chile, by guaranteeing that Congress will not unravel any trade agreements the White House hammers out, but will simply vote to approve or reject the agreements without amendment.

However, in a bow to the Republicans who control Congress, Clinton rejected demands by unions and conservation groups that any new agreement contain tough labor and environmental standards that can be enforced by imposing U.S. trade sanctions.

Instead, he proposed adopting far narrower standards that call for including only those labor and environmental provisions that are "directly related" to, or "necessary and appropriate" to, reducing trade barriers. He pledged to address broader environmental and labor issues in other pacts.

The White House unveiled its legislation in a political blitz, with top administration officials swarming over Capitol Hill to brief key House and Senate leaders. Clinton and Vice President Gore personally met with the House Democratic Caucus, many of whose members oppose the bill.

Under the legislation delivered Tuesday, the administration would be required to notify Congress in advance of any new negotiations it wants to undertake, and to keep lawmakers abreast of every stage of the talks.

Nevertheless, it is clear the president faces a difficult task in trying to push the measure through Congress quickly. Although Republicans pledged to send the bill to the House and Senate floors by late September or early October, liberal Democrats hinted they may try to delay it.

Congressional strategists said Clinton's late-afternoon meeting with the House Democratic Caucus was especially contentious, with anti-fast-track lawmakers criticizing him harshly for proposing the legislation, and Clinton visibly angry in responding to their charges.

White House officials said Clinton would like to have the fast-track bill approved by both houses by the time he travels to Santiago, Chile, for the Summit of the Americas next March. They said if the House passes the bill this autumn, the Senate could put off final action until early next year.

Besides expanding NAFTA to include Chile, White House officials want to use the new negotiating authority to hammer out free-trade pacts with several Latin American and Asian countries and to complete global talks on trade in agriculture and financial services.

U.S. presidents have enjoyed fast-track negotiating authority since 1974, but the legislation expired in 1994. Many foreign governments, leery of Congress' penchant for seeking to amend trade accords even after they have been signed, have refused to negotiate until such legislation is in force.

Republican leaders promised quick action on the legislation, with key House and Senate committee chairmen promising to begin hearings next week in hopes of sending their respective bills to the floor by mid-October.

Even so, the measure is expected to set off a bitter fight by protectionist Republicans and liberal Democrats. The AFL-CIO launched a nationwide campaign Tuesday to block the bill, with what President John Sweeney called an "unlimited" budget.

Labor groups and environmentalists are opposed to free-trade accords because they believe the pacts open the way for U.S. companies to move their businesses abroad to escape tougher labor and environmental standards in the United States.

However, most economists contend that free trade has been a boon for the American work force, providing thousands of new jobs in export industries and spurring the U.S. economy. The United States has been a major force for free trade for most of the past 50 years.

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