WASHINGTON — President Bush asked Congress on Thursday for expanded authority to negotiate trade agreements, seeking to break through a political stalemate that hindered the Clinton administration.
But Bush faces daunting obstacles in his quest for legislation at the heart of his trade agenda.
Even though the narrowly divided Congress is led by Republicans who agree with the president's goals, by all accounts any major trade initiative will die without support from at least some Democrats. Those votes--and the votes of certain populist or pro-labor Republicans--could prove hard to nail down.
The measure Bush seeks, once known as "fast-track" but now renamed "trade promotion authority," would establish a procedure that allows the president to negotiate trade agreements and then ask for straight up-or-down votes in Congress to implement them. No amendments would be allowed, a change that advocates call a critical step to ensure agreements don't unravel on the floor of the House or Senate.
Clinton had fast-track authority for the first two years of his presidency but failed in attempts to renew it during his second term.
An outline of the Bush agenda made public Thursday by U.S. Trade Representative Robert B. Zoellick argued that such negotiating authority is needed for the president to complete a pact on free trade in the Western Hemisphere, other regional and bilateral agreements with countries such as Chile and Singapore and, possibly, a new global trade accord.
Bush warned that without action the United States would lose ground in developing markets opening up to Europe, Japan and other economic powers.
"We have no time to waste in reasserting America's leadership on trade," Bush said in a letter to congressional leaders accompanying his agenda. "The president has not had trade negotiating authority since it expired in 1994. We can no longer afford to sit still while our trading partners move ahead without us."
But trade expansion touches all sorts of political hot buttons. It divides business and labor. It is anathema to many environmentalists. And it is vulnerable to critics who say American jobs would be risked at a time when the country fears recession and growing unemployment.
What's more, the minority bloc of Democrats who voted for agreements supported by Clinton in recent years, such as the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1993 and a China trade accord last year, no longer have an incentive to back the White House out of party loyalty.
Key House Democrats, whose leaders have opposed most trade legislation in recent years, say Bush needs to do more to demonstrate by word and deed that his trade policy will protect the environment and the rights of workers.
Rep. Robert T. Matsui (D-Sacramento), a free-trade advocate who helped build a coalition to approve permanent normal trade relations with China last year, predicted flatly that an ambitious trade-promotion bill will fail on the House floor if it comes up now.
"At the moment, the votes aren't there," Matsui said, "and I don't know how you piece them together."
Rep. Sander M. Levin (D-Mich.), the top Democrat on the House Ways and Means trade subcommittee, said Bush should build confidence in Congress by moving forward with trade issues one step at a time.
For instance, Levin said, the president should address surging imports of steel that are hurting domestic industry. He also said the president should move on legislation to implement trade agreements concluded by Clinton last year with Jordan and Vietnam.
Trade promotion authority "will only happen if there's true collaboration," Levin said. "They can try the other path. But I think it will fail."
Indeed, though Bush's agenda made no mention of the steel issue, it pointedly included the Jordanian and Vietnamese trade pacts as priorities, as well as another with Laos. The U.S.-Jordan pact, in particular, is held up by Democrats as a model that buttresses core labor rights in both countries.
In his statement, Bush indicated a desire to assuage labor and environmental groups. He proposed actions the United States could take, in combination with trade negotiations, to protect labor standards and the environment.
For instance, he said the United States could support the International Labor Organization, a group seeking to promote collective bargaining rights and other worker protections. He also proposed urging the World Bank, the World Trade Organization and the U.S. Agency for International Development to take various steps to boost labor rights.
The president supported similar U.S. action to raise the profile of environmental issues through the United Nations and other multilateral organizations.
Rep. David Dreier (R-San Dimas), a key Republican trade advocate, said the agenda showed Bush "is committed to a positive and productive dialogue with all parties interested in trade."