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Hastert Seeks Fast Passage of Trade Bill

November 06, 2001|NICK ANDERSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Days before the World Trade Organization meets to discuss a new trade round, House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) announced that he will call for a vote by mid-November to expand President Bush's authority to negotiate deals.

In a letter to a key committee chairman made public Monday, Hastert signaled the start of a final, intensive effort to round up votes for legislation that is a high priority for the Bush administration but deeply splits the House.

Congressional Republican leaders hope to capitalize on Bush's high political standing as the nation seeks to avoid a prolonged recession and combats terrorism at home and abroad.

Passing a major trade bill "will not only add a much-needed boost to our economy," Hastert wrote in a letter to Rep. William M. Thomas (R-Bakersfield), chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, "but it will serve as a vital instrument in increasing our national security."

But Hastert's decision to bring presidential "trade promotion" authority to the House floor by Nov. 16 is not without risk. House GOP leaders twice failed to pass the legislation, also known as "fast-track," during President Clinton's second term.

While most business leaders back the legislation as a step to help open foreign markets to U.S. goods, many union leaders and environmentalists oppose it, arguing that it fails to safeguard international labor and environmental standards.

Stitching together a bipartisan coalition of pro-trade Republicans and Democrats is not easy. In recent years most Democrats have opposed fast-track and other major trade legislation--such as the measure to normalize trade relations with China in 2000. A small but not insignificant minority of Republicans also has been generally opposed.

Clinton lost fast-track authority in 1994. The authority enables an administration to negotiate trade deals and ask for congressional approval on a straight up-or-down vote--without amendments. It was instrumental in the 1993 approval of the North American Free Trade Agreement.

Key lawmakers on both sides say this year's version of the fast-track bill does not yet have the votes for passage. Hastert's spokesman, John Feehery, said supporters were "probably a couple of votes short" as of Monday. But supporters predict setting a deadline will force fence-sitting lawmakers into the president's camp.

Calman J. Cohen, president of the Emergency Committee on American Trade, a business group tracking the issue, said about 50 to 60 of the 433 House members are undecided. (There are 220 Republicans, 211 Democrats, two independents and two vacancies.)

With the press of other issues after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Bush until now has not been heavily engaged on the issue. What he is able to do in the next week to 10 days to persuade wavering Republicans and some centrist Democrats could make the difference.

"The key will be the president's involvement," Cohen said. "He needs to make the final sale."

A potential boost to the president is the spotlight on trade as U.S. Trade Representative Robert B. Zoellick heads for the World Trade Organization meeting that opens Friday in Doha, the capital of Qatar.

Administration officials say that unless Bush has the prospect of getting Congress to approve trade authority, Zoellick will find it more difficult to persuade other WTO ministers to launch another round of global trade negotiations.

Richard W. Fisher, a former deputy U.S. trade representative during the Clinton administration, said he thinks Bush needs to seize the opportunity presented by the WTO conference to push Congress for his trade agenda.

"This is hardball," Fisher said. "If Doha's not the action-forcing event, what is? I think we take the risk; we do it now."

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Times staff writers Warren Vieth and Janet Hook contributed to this report.

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