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GOP Compromise in Works as Trade Vote Nears

November 09, 2001|NICK ANDERSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — With a top Bush administration goal hanging in the balance, the president and House Republican leaders are exploring possible compromise with Democrats on a major trade bill that could come to a vote as early as next week.

At the same time, lobbyists for and against the bill to expand presidential power to negotiate trade deals have ramped up their campaign with advertisements reaching the home districts of up to two dozen representatives who have not yet declared a position. Among the targets are Reps. Jane Harman (D-Venice) and Susan A. Davis (D-San Diego).

"More trade means good jobs for more Americans," declares one radio ad for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce that warns domestic businesses will lose out to foreign competitors if the government is "sitting on the sidelines watching other countries make [trade] deals."

Counters a television spot sponsored by the AFL-CIO: "Today, America needs unity. Yet some in Washington are pushing a controversial law that will divide us. . . . With layoffs mounting, America can't risk hasty trade laws that threaten more jobs."

For some years, the trade measure has been known as "fast track" in reference to its chief provision: It would allow the president to negotiate trade deals to bolster international commerce, subject to congressional approval on an up-or-down vote but not subject to amendment. This year, proponents have renamed the measure "trade promotion authority."

Former President Clinton, also a free-trader, lost the authority in 1994--after approval of the North American Free Trade Agreement--and never regained it. Since taking office this year, Bush has repeatedly urged Congress to give him the authority. He met with 13 House Democrats on Wednesday at the White House to press his case. But one uncommitted member said afterward that Bush "definitely talked like he was open to compromise."

With world trade ministers beginning a key meeting today in Qatar, administration officials, GOP leaders and business lobbyists also have stepped up efforts to pass the trade bill. Commerce Secretary Don Evans said on CBS' "Early Show" that he was skipping the trade meeting to help out on Capitol Hill. "What's important to American workers and American businesses is for us to lead in opening up markets around the world for our products and our services."

The trade vote is shaping up to be so close that Rep. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), who tracks votes for the party's leadership, predicted the final undecided members would not be pinned down until a vote is scheduled.

But when that will happen is an open question. Business leaders are anxious not to put the bill on the House floor until they know it can win. House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) wrote in a letter dated Nov. 2 that the bill would come up within two weeks--in other words, by next Friday. But on Thursday, House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Texas) would only say a vote next week is "possible."

One reason GOP leaders are hedging is that several sources--including some business advocates--have told them the bill still lacks majority support. A small but significant number of the 220 Republicans in the chamber are expected to oppose the bill, meaning advocates need some Democratic support.

The bill, authored by Rep. William M. Thomas (R-Bakersfield), chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, has three Democratic co-sponsors. It would grant the president trade promotion authority until 2005, with some congressional oversight.

Many Democrats argue the trade bill fails to safeguard labor and environmental standards.

Interest groups also are squeezing lawmakers. The League of Conservation Voters, an environmental group that in previous years had not taken a formal position on the trade measure, this week announced its opposition. Bill Morley, who is pushing the bill for the U.S. Chamber, said his group is telling lawmakers from both parties that "this vote is going to happen, and they need to stand up and be counted."

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