WASHINGTON — Breathing new life into an embattled White House trade initiative, House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) announced Thursday that Congress will vote in September on legislation to restore the president's power to negotiate trade treaties--the so-called fast-track proposal.
A major push by President Clinton and GOP leaders last year failed to get fast track through Congress, but Gingrich predicted that this time he would have the votes to pass it. The legislation would restore the president's traditional authority to negotiate trade agreements with other countries without fear that Congress will revamp them.
Gingrich also reiterated his promise to work with Clinton on reforming and financing the International Monetary Fund and to support legislation that would continue the current U.S. practice of granting normal trade relations to China rather than restricting its access to American markets.
The White House welcomed Gingrich's comments, but said Clinton wanted Congress to give top priority to IMF funding, not the fast-track legislation. The measure is known as the "fast track" bill because it would require Congress to approve or reject a trade agreement intact--on an expedited basis--without amending it.
Gingrich outlined his agenda in a letter and news conference designed to underscore his support for free-trade policies favored by export-dependent agricultural interests.
"Farmers and ranchers must have the confidence that they will be able to sell their products on the world market without restriction in the years ahead," Gingrich said in a letter to House Agriculture Committee Chairman Robert F. Smith (R-Ore.).
The Senate signaled its support for the fast-track bill last year, but the legislation stalled in the House after organized labor campaigned hard against it. After an emotional, hard-fought effort to drum up support, Gingrich concluded that he was about eight votes short of victory and pulled the bill rather than bring it to a vote. Little had been heard of the issue since.
In promising a vote on fast track in September, Gingrich said he believes that it would get more support because lawmakers are worried about problems in the U.S. agricultural economy, where prices for many commodities have dropped sharply, and about international economic instability.
Under the IMF legislation, the United States would provide an $18-billion line of credit to the international institution that could be used in case its existing resources run dry. The IMF would not use the money unless it had to and would pay the U.S. interest on any funds that it does use.
"The president believes that fast track is an important tool in our economic strategy of opening markets and creating jobs," White House spokesman Joe Lockhart said. "However, we believe our first priority is to pass the full IMF funding to stabilize markets in Asia and around the world, which will protect jobs and exports at home."